Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics—Book Overview

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What is Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics about? How can applying Maltz’s cybernetic principles help you reprogram your mind for success?

In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz explains how thinking of your mind as a machine can improve your self-image and dramatically increase your ability to feel successful and happy. Maltz argues that you can program your mind to achieve success and happiness in the same way that you’d program a machine to achieve certain goals. 

Below is a brief overview of his key ideas.

Cybernetics: Your Mind Works Like a Machine to Reach Goals

In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz explains the mechanisms at play when you successfully achieve a goal. He argues that your self-image (how you perceive yourself) is the main reason why you tend to succeed or fail in achieving the goals you set for yourself.

In an attempt to get to the root cause of why people choose to perceive themselves the way that they do, Maltz analyzed the process of success in reverse—he began to research the process the mind goes through to successfully achieve goals and how that links back to self-perception. Therefore, we’ll

(Shortform note: Maltz chose to analyze goals in reverse because of the way he views success: He doesn’t see it as external manifestations of prestige such as an impressive career, big house, or expensive car. Instead, he refers to success as an internal feeling, specifically, the satisfaction you feel when you achieve a goal that’s meaningful to you. Because he believed that your levels of confidence impact your ability to succeed in achieving goals, and your self-perception impacts your confidence, he believed he could figure out the solution to success by analyzing how successful goals are achieved.)

Maltz’s research into the process the mind goes through to achieve goals led him to develop an interest in cybernetic theory—a branch of science that studies the goal-oriented behavior of machines. The more Maltz analyzed the way humans achieve goals, the more he realized that the human brain and nervous system operate in accordance with cybernetic principles. 

To clarify how you achieve results in the same way that a cybernetic machine does, we’ll illustrate how both machines and humans rely upon an inbuilt guidance system that allows them to interpret positive and negative feedback to help them reach intended goals:

For a machine, imagine a missile programmed to hit a target: In this case, the missile has sensors in place which provide feedback to guide it to its target. This feedback is positive (missile’s on the correct path) and negative (missile’s not on the correct path). The missile continues to move forward and uses this feedback to correct its course and reach the target.

For the human mind, imagine how you learned to eat: The act of directing a spoon into your mouth took a lot of practice and there were many times that you ended up with food on your forehead or in your lap. Throughout all of this, your brain was trying to reach a target (get food into your mouth) and relied on positive and negative feedback to know if it was on the right track. Once you successfully managed to get the food into your mouth, your brain recorded the process as a success and began to duplicate the process every time you fed yourself.

So your brain worked according to cybernetic principles to reach your goal: It used positive and negative feedback to check if it was on track and, once it figured out the correct method, your brain recorded the successful feedback and discarded the negative feedback (which no longer served any purpose once your brain memorized the correct process) so that you could continue to repeat the action without further conscious thought. 

How Cybernetic Theory Has Evolved Since Psycho-Cybernetics’s Publication

To develop his theory, Maltz drew on the work of Dr. Norbert Wiener—the originator of cybernetic theory, and the first scientist to theorize that all intelligent behavior is the result of feedback mechanisms—and Dr. John von Neumann, who explored the analogies between technology and the human brain in his seminal work, Computer and the Brain.

Both scientists made important contributions to the development of modern artificial intelligence. However, recent developments in artificial intelligence have subverted the original theory that machines need humans to create and operate them in order to function and fulfill their objectives.

For example, some scientists have explored the possibility of merging animal or human brain cells (neurons) with technology to create machines with biological brains. This takes the concept of humans controlling machines to a whole new level—humans creating machines with the ability to govern themselves—and throws up a number of social and ethical issues that need to be considered.

In addition, it’s already possible for a human brain to interface with a computerbrains and computers can communicate with each other through the use of electromagnetic signals. Apparently, this process can help to overcome mental disorders and improve brain cognition. This has massive implications, especially in the area of healthcare—for example, if someone suffers from a brain injury and has to relearn how to eat, they could interface with a computer to help speed up the process.

Your Self-Image Defines Your Experience

Maltz’s conclusion that our brains work according to cybernetic principles leads to the assumption that all we need to do to achieve success and happiness is to decide on an appropriate goal and let our brain work like a machine that’s been directed to work on a specific action—it will automatically direct our thoughts and actions towards reaching that goal.

Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple: You may decide to achieve a goal, but deep down, your brain may not be programmed to achieve that goal. Maltz argues that your conscious goals often differ from your internal programming. For example, your conscious goal may be to make friends (results in success), but your internal programming might lead you to push people away (results in failure). This conflict between your conscious goal and your internal programming leads you to unhappiness and a feeling of failure because you can’t move past your internal programming.

Why does this incongruence between your conscious goals and your internal programming occur? Maltz argues that it’s down to your self-image.

(Shortform note: Maltz argues that when your conscious goals differ from your internal programming, you engage in self-defeating behaviors that thwart the goals you’ve set for yourself. You’ll recognize this in instances of self-sabotage. Obvious forms of self-sabotage include procrastination (when you avoid taking action to achieve your goals) and unhealthy habits such as overeating when your goal is to lose weight, or overspending when your goal is to save money.)

What Is Your Self-Image?

Like a machine, your brain has recorded every experience you’ve had up until this moment—every failure, success, and interaction. Your self-image is a reflection of how you’ve identified with and felt about these experiences. Your self-image defines who you are, how you express yourself, and how you act in any given situation.

For example, consider an experience such as falling over. You could either say to yourself, “I fell over” (a fact that won’t impact your self-image), or you could say to yourself, “I’m a klutz!” (the way you identified with the experience, which will impact your self-image, and the way that you express yourself—for example, you may act overly cautious as a result of this identification). 

What Influences Your Self-Image?

Maltz argues that your self-image is not a real thing. It’s simply a construct of thoughts you chose to think about past experiences. Thoughts are subjective (for example, you may think you’re fat but it doesn’t mean that you are fat) and may or may not be true. But if you accept them as truth, they become part of your self-image.

Why does your self-image accept all of your thoughts, regardless of how inaccurate they are, as truth? Because your nervous system can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality: Your brain doesn’t judge your thoughts—instead, it reacts automatically to what you think or imagine to be true.

Maltz draws on the practice of hypnotism to make his point. He says that if you’re hypnotized into believing that you’re in a snowstorm, your body will react to the cold: you’ll shiver, goose pimples will rise on your skin, and your teeth will chatter. In the same way that a hypnotist’s words have power over the hypnotized subject, what you accept as truth about yourself has power over you, even if it’s not actually true.

Maltz argues that you’ve been “hypnotized” by others’ words throughout your life. As a young child, you were impressionable and prone to believing what those around you said about your character. You accepted their opinions and beliefs about you as truth and this shaped your self-image in the early part of your life. Your self-image has likely evolved over time, but if you haven’t addressed these original thoughts, they will continue to inform your opinion of yourself. 

You’ve also used your imagination to hypnotize yourself: Thoughts plus feelings form mental images and create a strong impression in your mind—these strong impressions turn into beliefs that define your self-image. For example, worries are a form of mental imagery. You think about things that could go wrong and create feelings of anxiety and fear—these thoughts and feelings create the impression of the worst-case scenario in your mind. Your mind then operates according to the belief that the worst-case scenario will take place, and your nervous system responds by creating the appropriate emotional and physical reactions.

Your Self-Image Impacts Your Behavior

When it comes to achieving goals, humans and machines differ in one essential way: humans rely on their self-image to interpret the feedback they receive from their environment. Their interpretation of feedback impacts the way they approach their goals and doesn’t always lead to success.

Maltz argues that your self-image determines how you perceive your environment and how you read signals to interpret feedback. In other words, your self-image determines how you engage in and perceive every social interaction and experience throughout your life.  

Feedback Loops Reinforce Your Behavior

Maltz argues that the self-image is continually reinforced by what he calls “feedback loops”—how feedback reinforces learned behavior and programming—and draws parallels with how cybernetic machines incorporate feedback to operate successfully. 

Machines process feedback so that they can achieve their goal. Once they achieve the goal, they store their successful feedback (memory of successful attempts) and discard their negative feedback (memory of mistakes). Their memory of successful attempts creates a feedback loop that allows them to “learn” quickly and operate efficiently and successfully.

However, unlike a machine, humans rely on their self-images to interpret feedback to their behavior. Your self-image decides whether to release negative feedback so that you operate successfully (behave in a way that results in success), or to remember and reinforce negative feedback so that you operate inefficiently (behave in a way that creates failure). If your self-image decides to focus on negative feedback, this can lead to programming that causes you to reinforce negative patterns of behavior that work against what you want to achieve. 

  • For example, imagine someone who was bullied as a child and failed to receive support. This person identified with feeling victimized and isolated, and this impacted her self-image. She now finds it difficult to trust others and form close relationships—she expresses this difficulty in various ways, from aloofness to hostility. As a result, her behavior keeps people at a distance. She interprets their distance as proof that others don’t want to connect with her, and she remains acutely aware of how they make her feel (victimized and isolated). She uses this interpretation as proof that she should continue to protect herself from social interactions.

Even though she wants to connect with others (her goal) her self-image causes her to interpret all feedback as negative, stops her from moving towards what she wants, and perpetuates her self-isolation. 

Your interpretation of your environment justifies your self-image and how you continue to act—how you continue to act further reinforces your interpretation of your environment, and so on. So, if you want to achieve success and happiness—according to the goals you’ve consciously set for yourself—you need to ensure that your self-image aligns with what you want. This way, you’ll be able to interpret and act on feedback in a way that moves you toward your goals.

Use Your Imagination to Create Success

Maltz argues that since your self-image is a result of hypnotization and imagination, you can use your imagination to “dehypnotize” yourself and improve your self-image. The more you improve your self-image, the more you improve the way you’re programmed to act. The first step to reprogramming your self-image is becoming conscious of whether you’re using your imagination constructively (to create positive thoughts and feelings) or deconstructively (to create negative thoughts and feelings).

If you’re using your imagination deconstructively, Maltz argues that you need to make a conscious effort to instead use it to form a clear mental picture of yourself as successful—this will allow you to practice feeling successful, and will ultimately improve your approach to life. To replace existing negative beliefs with new successful beliefs, you need to create equally strong impressions in your mind—when you create positive feelings of excitement and desire regularly enough, they’ll outweigh your negative feelings, and your self-image will improve.

(Shortform note: Maltz argues that you must imagine positive feelings that outweigh your negative feelings so that they can create a strong enough impression to replace your unwanted beliefs. However, when you’re in a state of anxiety or fear, it’s not so easy to jump to a positive thought. This is because your thoughts and your state of mind reinforce one another to create an internal feedback loop that’s difficult to break out of: Your thoughts determine your state of mind and your state of mind determines your thoughts. Abraham Hicks suggests a useful technique to help you reframe your negative thoughts into positive ones.)

Five Self-Image Alignment Methods

Maltz describes five methods you can use to direct your imagination towards thoughts and feelings of success related to specific goals and the improvement of your self-image. 

Method 1: Prove That Change is Possible

Maltz suggests that you choose a habit that you perform daily—one that’s not tied to your self-image, such as brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on—and commit to doing it differently. Every time you make the effort to change this particular habit, affirm to yourself that if you can break this habit, you can also break any negative thought patterns by replacing them with successful thought patterns. For example, if you normally put your right shoe on first, start making the conscious effort to put your left shoe on first. Use the act of putting your shoes on differently to remind yourself that you can choose to think differently. 

(Shortform note: Maltz suggests that you focus on changing a current habit to reinforce your commitment to change your self-image. But he doesn’t provide advice on how to successfully change this habit. Since this is the first step to improve your self-image, it’s necessary to set yourself up to succeed—the more you succeed, the more motivation you’ll have to move forward with the process. According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, habits are linked to four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward—if you ensure that each of the four stages reinforces the habits you wish to change, you’ll be more likely to succeed.)

Method 2: Relax Your Way to Success

Maltz argues that practicing physical relaxation will enable you to consciously control your imagination and, subsequently, your self-image. When your mind is relaxed, it’s more receptive to positive suggestions. This is because negative thoughts create tension in the body—this tension makes it difficult for your mind to accept new ideas or possibilities. On the other hand, when you’re in a state of relaxation, negative thoughts tend to disappear. Relaxing your mind and body will create space for your positive suggestions to thrive.

(Shortform note: In addition to creating tension that blocks your mind from accepting new thoughts and ideas, negative and stressful thoughts impact your ability to think about what you’re experiencing. This is because, when you feel stress, your amygdala acts as if you’re in danger: It ensures that you respond automatically to threats by inhibiting the thinking part of your brain (the hippocampus). In other words, stress and tension stop you from thinking objectively and lead you to act in irrational ways.)

Method 3: Imagine Your Successful Personality

Maltz suggests that you use your imagination to think about the person you want to be and to recall your successful memories. He argues that each time you create or recall successful feelings, your subconscious will record them and imprint them into your self-image. These successful feelings will accumulate in your self-image and you’ll gradually find yourself naturally feeling and acting more successfully.

(Shortform note: While visualizing success can lead you to act in successful ways, in Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday claims that it can also confuse your mind and create the opposite effect: When your mind believes that you’ve already achieved something, you feel that you’ve made progress despite not having taken any measurable steps toward achieving your goal. This feeling of progress feels good, but it’s based on a false sense of achievement that may cause you to lose sight of the actions you need to take to move forward.)

Method 4: Focus on a Goal

Maltz argues that you need to find a reason to change your self-image before you can develop the skills to change it. In other words, you should know what results you hope to achieve with an improved self-image. Without a clear reason, you’re unlikely to find the motivation you need to make the required changes. So, if you want to change your self-image so that you can feel more inner peace, think about why you want this—what you’ll get, or what improvements you hope to see in your life once you make this change. For example, will you get along better with your family, or feel more productive at work? 

Once you’ve thought of something that your successful self would want to achieve, break it down and think of the first step that you can realistically achieve—Maltz argues that it’s important to develop the habit of success early on so that you can gradually build up your self-confidence to achieve more demanding goals. 

Method 5: Choose Happiness Now

Maltz argues that genuine success and wellbeing come from cultivating and developing the habit of happiness in your life. Further, he claims that your mental attitude influences the way that your body heals: Happy people are generally healthier and more resilient to physical setbacks because they expect to get well and have a reason to get well. 

On the other hand, unhappy people suffer from poor health and wellbeing because they don’t have a reason to get better—they don’t have anything to look forward to. Studies have shown results that support his idea that negative attitudes are bad for your health. For example, stressed out and unhappy people often suffer from ulcers and high blood pressure, they’re more likely to develop addictive behaviors and less likely to engage in healthy routines.

(Shortform note: Multiple research experiments confirm Maltz’s claim that mental attitudes impact health. Studies on the impact of negative mental states (depression, stress, anxiety) on health confirm that negative attitudes are bad for your health. Prolonged negativity affects your hormones, immune system, sleep, brain, and digestion. These researchers suggest that you can reduce your levels of stress and negativity by undertaking a daily ritual such as meditation, therapy, or physical exercise.)

An Active Mind Is a Happy Mind: The realization that success comes from cultivating happiness led Maltz to think about what makes people feel happy. Maltz argues that your mind is designed to achieve goals. You’re more likely to feel interested and engaged in your life when you give your mind goals to pursue. The more you pursue satisfying goals, the more you have to look forward to and engage with. This makes you want to look after your health and your wellbeing. As a result, you’re more inclined to feel happy. 

(Shortform note: Like Maltz, the author of Flow argues that people are more likely to feel happy when they focus all of their attention on completing tasks and achieving goals. He claims that the more you direct your focus to achieve a goal, the more absorbed you feel in what you’re doing. This sense of absorption makes it difficult for your mind to wander and get distracted by negative thoughts, and trains your mind to feel satisfied and happy—your mind gets used to experiencing satisfaction and this feeling impacts your overall mood and behavior.)

Release Your Limitations

Maltz argues that the more you free yourself from responding to and identifying with negative thoughts—by deliberately creating successful feedback loops like a machine—the more likely you are to develop a happy and successful state of mind. He prescribes three methods you can use to replace existing negative thoughts and feelings with positive thoughts and feelings, and redirect yourself towards achieving successful outcomes.

Method 1: Turn Challenges into Opportunities to Improve Your Self-Image

A challenge is any situation that takes you out of your comfort zone. It’s important to see this type of situation as an opportunity rather than a crisis. Maltz argues that someone with a negative self-image often confuses challenges (opportunities to advance) with crises (life-threatening situations) because they perceive threats to be bigger than they are. They find excuses to avoid challenges, and they waste time and energy worrying or evading discomforting situations. On the other hand, people with a positive self-image recognize the difference between an actual crisis and a challenge. They proactively seek ways to overcome challenges, and they spend their time visualizing and planning how to make the best out of every situation.

(Shortform note: In her book Mindset, Carol S. Dweck explains the two mindsets used to describe a person’s attitude to challenges and setbacks: Growth mindset (people see challenges as an opportunity to learn) and fixed mindset (people see challenges as proof of their inability to achieve success). Dweck argues that even if you have a tendency toward a fixed mindset, you can develop a growth mindset through conscious awareness and effort. Many of the methods Maltz prescribes complement Dweck’s argument that you can improve the way you approach and overcome the challenges in your life.)

Prepare to Move Past Your Comfort Zone

Maltz suggests that you plan ahead for challenges as much as you can by taking the time to investigate your fears. To move past your fears, ask yourself questions to uncover what exactly you’re afraid of and then use your answers to better prepare yourself for this challenge—use your imagination to overwrite your fearful thoughts by visualizing yourself responding to situations calmly and competently.

(Shortform note: Like Maltz, Tim Ferriss suggests that you should investigate your fears. He argues that focusing on your worst-case scenarios will empower you to approach any challenge. This is because you’re more likely to hold back from taking action when your fears are unknown—vague possibilities that could happen. The more you think about the unknown, the more powerless you feel to overcome your fears. But when you define the actual worst-case scenario, you give your mind something specific and productive to work on.)

Method 2: Practice Reflecting Only on the Facts

Maltz argues that your negative feelings (anxiety, discomfort, lack of self-confidence) are not an indication of reality, just how you feel about reality—and those feelings are a result of your habitual thought process. That is, if you habitually think negative thoughts, you’ll often misunderstand events and draw false conclusions that keep you stuck in a negative feedback loop. When you feel negative thoughts, feelings, or memories surface, choose to replace them with rational thoughts that encourage positive beliefs. 

(Shortform note: Similar to Maltz’s method, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on asking questions to assess the rationality of uncomfortable thoughts and to explore other perspectives. This process helps you to examine and challenge uncomfortable thoughts so that you can find alternative ways to think about your triggers. The more you question the validity of your uncomfortable thoughts, the less likely you are to accept them as truth and allow them to rule your emotions.)

Method 3: Forgive and Forget

Maltz argues that an unwillingness or failure to forgive past mistakes and traumas holds people back from experiencing success in their lives—they form “emotional scars” to protect themselves from future hurts and humiliations. Instead of protecting them, these scars only prevent them from experiencing new things and keep them trapped in a negative mental state..

Forgiveness, on the other hand, heals these emotional scars and allows you to move forward with your life. You need to accept that we all make mistakes and it’s okay—no one’s perfect. Holding onto blame only holds you back from success. Forgiving yourself and others for past mistakes will liberate you and allow you to focus on where you want to go.

(Shortform note: In How To Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie expands upon the idea that you should “forgive and forget” past hurts so that you can move forward and embrace success and happiness. He claims that holding onto past grievances takes away your power because it prevents you from focusing on what you want. These negative feelings can also harm your physical health and produce effects such as high blood pressure and insomnia. Carnegie’s suggestions for releasing grievances, or “emotional scars,” include looking for the good in every situation, and focusing on something you’re passionate about.)

Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics—Book Overview

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Here's what you'll find in our full Psycho-Cybernetics summary :

  • How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
  • How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
  • Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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