Psycho-Cybernetics: Lively Summary And Selected Quotes

"Your self-image determines your self-worth." – Maxwell Maltz, "Psycho-Cybernetics" Click To Tweet

The book Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to Get More Living out of Life continues to live and breathe through six decades of readers. In it, a surgeon-turned-author, Maxwell Maltz, presents his revolutionary ideas on how we could leave our past behind and achieve unbelievable goals.

Here’s a 2-sentence summary: Psycho-Cybernetics is a system of self-improvement and success-achievement through changing one’s self-image. Its central idea is how to build a positive self-image to make goals come true, how to use positive thinking and self-discipline to progress in life, and how to resist the complacency and negativity that often gets in the way.

Psycho-Cybernetics shows how to leave our failures behind and build a fulfilling and successful life. Maxwell Maltz, its author, shares insights on happiness and success based on science, evidence, and anecdotes.

Summary Part 1: What Is The Book “Psycho-Cybernetics” Is About

Psycho-Cybernetics is a classic self-help book, published in 1960. It is a book that provides a framework of how the mind operates as a goal-striving mechanism. The author, Maxwell Maltz, was a cosmetic surgeon who concluded that self-image, an individual’s mental picture of himself or herself, is the key to personality transformation.

“Psycho-cybernetics” is a term coined by Maxwell Maltz to explain the system of ideas that form a definite path to overcoming your limitations and achieving success. It shows how you can be the master of your own destiny.

The book draws insights from machine principles and self-image psychology to help you understand and internalize this system of ideas to improve your own self-image and achieve your goals. It focuses on how you can use your mind to steer yourself towards positive goals and success.

Here’s what one can learn from the book: 1. How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact your successes and failures. 2. How to improve your life by changing your thoughts, outlook, behavior, and habits. 3. How you can turn your setbacks and frustrations into achievements and happiness.

See that picture below: An elephant sitting sadly because it cannot go free. Now note, the rope is tied to a small peg, and the elephant can pull it out easily. But it does not even try!

learned helplessness
Big elephant – Small peg. (Source: Psychology Spot)

Many years back, when the elephant was being trained, that rope used to be tied to a big tree. So, no matter how much force was applied, the jumbo could not uproot the tree from the ground.

Over the years, this self-limiting belief made a permanent house in its mind. And now, even when it is merely a small peg, it thinks it cannot pull it out to release itself.

The jumbo doesn’t even try because it has learned to expect the results are no more under its control. Later, after extensive research on dogs, Dr. Martin Seligman called this behavior Learned Helplessness. After repeated failures, even when there are opportunities to escape, learned helplessness stops the animal from taking any action.

This is the concept that Maxwell Maltz thought of around 15 years earlier than Seligman. Maltz told us our self-limiting negative beliefs are behind our failures and disappointments.

Summary Part 2: How Our Cybernetics System Helps Us Succeed or Fail

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon. He reconstructed people’s faces to make them more aesthetic. He noticed that after face surgeries, some people let go of their old persona and lifestyle. They became different personalities. While others stayed the same.

Maltz felt it was not merely the better looks on the other side of plastic surgery that changed some of them. So he set out to find an answer. The result was Psycho-Cybernetics.

Psycho-Cybernetics: Maxwell Maltz (Audible Audiobook)

Maltz found the human mind operates like a “servo-mechanism” or “cybernetics.” Once we set up a servo-mechanism with instructions, it works on its own to reach the end-point goal.

But his greatest finding was this: We can purposefully apply this cybernetic system to the human brain to achieve anything we want. The mind can be made to act as an automatic goal-striving machine to manifest and establish success or failure, happiness or unhappiness.

He wrote: “Servo-mechanisms are so constructed that they automatically “steer” their way to a goal, target, or “answer.” When we conceive of the human brain and nervous system as a form of servo-mechanism, operating with Cybernetic principles, we gain new insight into the why and wherefore of human behavior. I choose to call this new concept “Psycho-Cybernetics”: the principles of Cybernetics as applied to the human brain.”

First, we feed the mind with certain beliefs and images. Then our mind, as a cybernetics system, intuitively instructs our body to carry out all the actions required to produce the exact result. Whether our beliefs are positive or negative, wanted or unwanted, the system will assume responsibility, act on these, and take us to the goals.

This is the psycho-cybernetics or the cybernetic system of our mind. It is impersonal and unbiased. It accepts any target the mind holds up and instinctively takes us there.

The whole sequence works as follows:

Self-image ⇒ Psycho-Cybernetics ⇒ Success/Failure

Maxwell Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics for “steering your mind to a productive, useful goal so you can reach the greatest port in the world: peace of mind.”

He said the human mind works like an automated machine, and once it is shown a positive self-image, it employs every resource available to make that image become real. It does the same with a negative self-image, that is, makes it come true.

So, it starts with the image we hold in our minds. A negative, discouraging, and unhelpful self-image will lead us to a future of despair. To change the automatic actions of our body and get to the right goals, we must carefully feed it the right instructions.

Psycho-Cybernetics Summary

Summary Part 3: Create A New Self-Image, Distinct From Who You See In The Mirror

Maltz says we each have a self-image gleaned from our experiences. We created these mental snapshots of ourselves from our past experiences, mainly from what we went through in our childhoods. We may not even remember many of those experiences.

But now, as grown-ups, these self-images steer us the way we live our lives. We repeatedly get successes or failures because our past guides our future behaviors — without our conscious realization.

  • What are you?
  • What type of person are you to yourself?
  • What stories do you narrate when asked who you are?

Psycho-Cybernetics asks, ‘Who do you see in the mental mirror?’ And how can you improve your self-image? It talks about how you create your self-image and how it affects your happiness and success.

Those answers tell you who you see in the mirror — your self-image. Your self-image is a picture of the person you are to yourself. This image holds all your beliefs based on your experiences, successes, and failures. We always carry around this mental picture of ourselves.

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Maltz was one of the first authors to bring to public attention how our self-image has immense control over our ability to achieve our desired goals. Self-image is the mental picture we create of ourselves that we base on our strengths, weaknesses, performances, and successes.

To quote Maltz, “The “self-image”, the individual’s mental and spiritual concept or “picture” of himself, was the real key to personality and behavior. Change the self-image and you change the personality and the behavior.”

Now, this explained what Maltz’s patients went through after reconstruction surgeries. Those who took care to change their self-image changed their personalities. And the ones who did not stay the same.

A self-image can be mostly positive, overtly negative, or anything in between; that is insignificant. More importantly, we must understand that we keep acting according to the image we create of ourselves.

Whoever we are, we believe certain things about ourselves. These form our self-image, the story we tell ourselves about our own selves. Even a so-called successful person can have a ‘loser’ image of himself or herself.

So, if you think of yourself as a miserable failure, you act and behave in ways you will probably fail. And if you see yourself as a success, you keep finding more ways to succeed more often, as Maltz pointed out.

To really live, that is to find life reasonably satisfying, you must have an adequate and realistic self-image that you can live with. You must find your self acceptable to you.

– Maxwell Maltz

Maltz explains it with an example from one of his friend’s life. Dr. Alfred Adler, a time-honored psychiatrist, neurologist, and founder of the School of Individual Psychology, was poor at maths in his school. Adler’s teacher believed he had no talent for the subject. Adler accepted his teacher’s judgment of him as his self-image. And he kept getting low grades in the subject. Over time, it filled his mind with a sense of inferiority complex.

Then one day, his teacher put up a complex equation on the board. Suddenly, Adler understood how he could solve it. And he solved it. This incident ushered in a new self-confidence in him. It led him to break his cage and finally change his mental image of himself.

Adler later worked on his most famous concept — inferiority complex — and argued how it plays a crucial role in shaping one’s personality.

Your self-image is a picture of the person you are to yourself. It holds all your beliefs based on your experiences, successes, and failures. Click To Tweet

Summary Part 4: Your Positive Self-Image Automatically Creates A New Successful Life For You

Our self-image is the main target of our goal-striving machine. Whatever it is, the psycho-cybernetics system goes out of its way to shape our lives as accurately as that image. So, our actions, feelings, behavior, and even our limitations are always consistent with our self-image.

No matter how good or bad you made your self-image into, your cybernetics or the subconscious mind system always acts upon it automatically.

The “self-image” sets the boundaries of individual accomplishment. It defines what you can and cannot do.

Now, if you have a negative self-image, it comes from the negative beliefs you hold about yourself. But notice this: your negative beliefs are not a result of your experiences. Your experiences are just events — they come with neither negativity nor positivity attached to them.

What makes them positive or negative is how you interpret them. It is the self-interpretation and the self-talk that lead to the conclusions you draw from them. See below how it happens:

Experiences ⇒ Conclusions ⇒ Beliefs ⇒ Self-image

Now, often, we falsely remember things that are not facts and did not happen at all. Researchers found the brain frequently confabulates. It fabricates imaginary experiences as compensation for gaps in memory. These false memories then become our beliefs.

Now, the opposite is also true. By interpreting your experience in a positive light, you can have positive self-beliefs. And these can lead you to have an overall positive attitude and ultimately build a positive mindset that stands strong even in hard times. You can do this by re-thinking the entire experience rationally and logically.

So, we can change our self-image if we want to. Maltz assures us, “The self-image can be changed. Numerous case histories have shown that one is never too young nor too old to change his self-image and thereby start to live a new life.”

And once you change your beliefs, you change your self-image. So, if you replace your negative self-talk and negative thoughts with optimistic and positive thinking, you can improve your self-image and be happier. Maltz confirms, “Once the concept of self has changed, other things consistent with the new concept of self, are accomplished easily and without strain.”

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Any of us can bring about this change. There is no exception to this. To do this, however, the first step we have to stop comparing ourselves to others. And create a better self-image that is so uniquely us. Maltz writes, “You as a personality are simply not in competition with any other personality because there is not another person on the face of the earth like you.”

The truth about you is this:
You are not inferior.
You are not superior.
You are simply “You”.

Maltz presents Psycho-Cybernetics as a concept of how our brains work. He said the human brain works like a machine. And like a machine, when there is positive feedback, the brain keeps doing what it has been doing. But when there is negative feedback, the brain stops doing what it has always done, changes its behavior, and ‘corrects its course’ – all automatically.

Once you accomplish a correct or “successful response,” the brain stores it in memory for future use. After that, whenever you face a similar task again, your brain pulls out the memory and makes you go through the learned behavior.

Learned behavior is a way of working that a person develops because of experience. Learned behaviors contrast with inherited behaviors, which are genetically hard-wired, and we can perform them with no previous experience. Sometimes, drug and alcohol abuse in persons appears to be learned behaviors. Research suggests children whose parents used marijuana have an increased likelihood of taking to alcohol and substance abuse as teens or young adults.

You think little about it this time because your nervous system now acts as an automatic response mechanism that already has a set of instructions to carry out. By applying psycho-cybernetics, we can better understand why and how humans behave the way they do.

Humans have a built-in mechanism for success.

Maltz advises us to start with our brilliant capability of imagination to activate this mechanism. Your brain cannot tell the difference between an imagined and an actual experience. As a result, it reacts according to what you believe or imagine to be true.

Research by Dr. Theodore X. Barber at the American University in Washington during the 1950s found hypnotized patients could easily undergo surgery without anesthesia. This phenomenon of hypnosurgery takes a person to imagine they have received anesthesia, and therefore, will not feel any pain during the surgery.

Once a patient believes they have received an anesthetic, their brain stops processing the pain signals from the nerves.

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Humans may not be machines, but we can think of our mental processes as mechanized. By using cybernetic principles to understand this machine thinking, we can overcome negative ideas about ourselves, enhance our self-image, and live a fulfilling, successful life.

So, once you train your brain to believe you can succeed and be happy, you see more successes and joys coming your way.

Summary Part 5: Achieve Your Ultimate Goal of Success And Happiness

Most of us think of happiness in terms of future goals, and that is the wrong approach.

We think we’ll be happy once we get a new partner, or a better job, or a bigger home. By doing that, we are tying up our happiness to a future goal. But being happy is something we must practice in the present moment.

If we lose our happiness when the driver behind us honks like a maniac, it’s because we choose to react to it with annoyance and frustration. We can, instead, notice that his honking is just honking — and we may respond in a better way to it without losing our cool.

He could squish the car-horn buttons as hard as he wants, but he can never push your buttons unless you allow him to. No matter how hard anyone tries to stress you out, if you know the coping mechanism that Maltz suggests, you can reduce your stress and choose peace even in such times of negativity and toxicity.

Scientific experiments have shown that it is absolutely impossible to feel fear, anger, anxiety, or negative emotions of any kind while the muscles of the body are kept perfectly relaxed.

– Maxwell Maltz

An incident in America’s greatest inventor Edison’s life provides a splendid example in Maltz’s book.

Edison once lost his laboratory in a fire. Unfortunately, he had no insurance on his multi-million-dollar lab against fire mishaps. As he stood watching the fire engulf all his work, he decided he will start rebuilding his lab the first thing the next day. Edison, thus, avoided the unhappiness of mulling over an irretrievable loss.

Happiness is, after all, an internal feeling. It is a product of your thoughts and the attitudes you hold about your world and the people in it. Happy people are happy because they genuinely source their happiness from within themselves. They do not look towards outside events to fix their well-being.

Maltz says a few things about happiness that may find the positive psychologists of our day nod in agreement. For starters, he suggests when we are happy, we can think, perform, feel, and fare better.

  • He mentions the Russian psychologist Kekcheyev’s finding when thinking pleasant thoughts, people could see better, taste, smell, and hear better, and detect finer differences in touch.
  • Maltz writes Dr. William Bates’ experiments found the eyesight improves as soon as the person is thinking pleasant thoughts or watching pleasant scenes.
  • He writes about research by Margaret Corbett, who found when the subjects were thinking pleasant thoughts, their memory improves in significant amounts.
  • He talks about the Harvard psychologists who found there is a correlation between unhappiness and criminality. They found a majority of criminals came from unhappy homes and had a history of unhappy relationships.
  • As Maltz writes, a ten-year-long Yale study on frustration found that much of our immorality and hostility to others is due to our own unhappiness.
  • He quotes Dr. John A. Schindler who said, “unhappiness is the sole cause of all psychosomatic illnesses, and the only cure is happiness.”
  • Maltz quotes William James, “The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the pining, pulling, mumping mood, no matter what outward ills it may have been engendered?”
  • He also brings in Blaise Pascal, “We are never living, but only hoping to live; and, looking forward always to being happy, it is inevitable that we are never so.”

Another example from the book. There was a salesperson who felt intimidated when calling on the big shots. Maltz helped him overcame his fear and nervousness by asking him would he physically get down on all fours and crawl into his superior’s office and prostrate before them? The man said ‘No.’ So Maltz asked, ‘Then why do you mentally cringe and crawl before them?’

Maltz then asked, would he go into his bosses’ office with his hand extended out like a beggar and beg for a dime to buy a cup of coffee? ‘Certainly not,’ the man said. So Maltz pointed out, can’t he see he is doing essentially the same thing when he goes into his boss’ office. ‘You walk in overly concerned with whether they will approve of you. Can’t you see you have your hand begging for their approval and acceptance of you?’

With this insight into his plight, the salesman saw how he could change his mental image of himself and become more assertive with his higher-ups.

Actionable Advice For Success From Psycho-Cybernetics

  1. Create believable and achievable goals and targets. Success begins with effective goal-setting.
  2. Keep your goals focused on the end rather than the means. Once you have fixed the end goal, the cybernetics system will find out ways to take you towards it. It is automatic.
  3. Mistakes will happen on the way to your success, and they are feedbacks to fine-tune and autocorrect. Errors handled this way are positive reactions that propel you towards your goal.
  4. Let your past mistakes stay in the past, and do not let them direct your future. Instead, focus on the present choices that push you towards your goal.
  5. Trust your journey. Psycho-Cybernetics is a process that works. So, trust it before starting on the journey to your goals. Let it work automatically rather than try hard to make it work.

Principles To Live By According To Maxwell Maltz

  1. Free yourself from the fears of past failures. Our past mistakes were our learning modules. We learned from them and became better. We do not remember them for the results they produced, or the fears the shudders they give us remembering those consequences. We only must keep the lessons in mind and discard the fears of our failures.
  2. Believe in your ability to change yourself for the better. People who think they can bring about a positive change in themselves, are the ones who manage to do so. It is almost impossible for others to change us if we, ourselves, do not believe we can change.
  3. Trust the mind’s cybernetic system. Once we finalize the issue we need to focus on, we need to think about it deeply, exploring it from all angles. After that, we should clear out our minds of all doubts and worries about the results. We might even choose to forget the issue for a while. And then come back to it in some time. We will find our mind has automatically zeroed in on a solution.
  4. Imagine a positive version of yourself. Maltz says our imaginations are stronger than we estimate them to be. Maltz points out our brain cannot differentiate between imagination and reality. Whatever blueprint we supply it with (via our thoughts and beliefs), it creates a reality exactly as that blueprint. When we imagine ourselves as incapable of being successful or as persons who are always going to be unhappy, we become that. Instead, if we create a strong positive image of ourselves in our mind (positive self-image), we become that flourishing winner.
  5. Do not defer your happiness; be happy today. Never postpone your happiness. Don’t think you can’t allow yourself to be happy until you hit a certain goal, or bag a certain deal, or own a certain thing. Do not link your happiness to success. Success does not bring you happiness (find out why). If you are not a happy person, then success will not cheer up your unhappy self. Be happy today while going through your struggles.
  6. Accomplish these seven wellbeing needs. Maltz enumerates the seven needs we should aim at fulfilling to improve our wellbeing: 1. Love, 2. Security, 3. Creative Expression, 4. Recognition, 5. New Experiences, 6. Self-esteem, 7. Positivity about the future.
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Selected Quotes From Psycho-Cybernetics

  • “The science of Cybernetics does not tell us that “man” is a machine but that man has and uses a machine. Moreover, it tells us how that machine functions and how it can be used.”
  • “Our self-image, strongly held, essentially determines what we become.”
  • “The most liberating of all thoughts is disregard or “disconcern” for what other people think. … Excessive concern over what other people think inhibits personality more than any other factor.”
  • “To change a habit, make a conscious decision, then act out the new behavior.”
  • “We are built to conquer environment, solve problems, achieve goals, and we find no real satisfaction or happiness in life without obstacles to conquer and goals to achieve.”
  • “We must have the courage to bet on our ideas, to take the calculated risk, and to act. Everyday living requires courage if life is to be effective and bring happiness.”
  • “A human being always acts and feels and performs in accordance with what he imagines to be true about himself and his environment…For imagination sets the goal ‘picture’ which our automatic mechanism works on. We act, or fail to act, not because of ‘will,’ as is so commonly believed, but because of imagination.”
  • “When you see a thing clearly in your mind, your creative “success mechanism” within you takes over and does the job much better than you could do it by conscious effort or willpower.”
  • “We age not by years but by events and our emotional reactions to them.”
  • “Times will change for the better when you change.”
  • “To really live, that is to find life reasonably satisfying, you must have an adequate and realistic self-image that you can live with. You must find your self acceptable to you.”
  • “Live in the present. The past is gone; the future is unknown – but the present is real, and your opportunities are now.”
  • “One of the commonest causes of unhappiness … is that they (people) are attempting to live their lives on the deferred payment plan. They do not live, nor enjoy life now, but wait for some future event or occurrence. They will be happy when they get married, when they get a better job, when they get the children through college, when they have completed some task, or won some victory.”
  • “Happiness is a mental habit, a mental attitude, and if it is not learned or practiced in the present, it is never experienced.
  • “When one problem is solved, another appears to take its place. Life is a series of problems.”
  • “Man is by nature a goal-striving being. And because man is “built that way” he is not happy unless he is functioning as he was made to function – as a goal-striver. Thus true success and true happiness not only go together but each enhances the other.”
  • “The greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one.”
  • “Whatever your definition of happiness may be, you will experience happiness only as you experience more life. More living means among other things more accomplishment, the attainment of worthwhile goals, more love experienced and given, more health and enjoyment, more happiness for both yourself and others.”
  • “If you are to be happy at all, you must be happy – period! Not happy because of.”
  • “Human beings always act and feel and perform in accordance with what they imagine to be true about themselves and their environment.”
  • “If you make friends with yourself, you will never be alone.”

Final Words

Raising your self-worth and improving your self-image will eventually make you feel good overall, have a more empathetic and altruistic attitude towards others, and build up your inventory of positive emotions.

The most delightful surprise in life is to suddenly recognise your own worth.

– Maxwell Maltz


Fiction lives longer than nonfiction. Let us prove it. A few books from the sixties that are much in demand even today are:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  3. To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  4. The Fall of The House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
  5. A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
  6. The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich by William Shirer
  7. Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.

Notice, of those seven books above, the first five are fiction. The books people keep buying for over 50 years are mostly fiction. So, you see, fiction lives longer than nonfiction.

Now, a generation is the average time period during which children who are born become adults, and begin to have children. If we were to take each generation of 25 years, then fifty years means two generations.

Just look around — you will find some of the best nonfiction books of the Silent Generation did not cross over to Generation X. In that list above, only the last two are nonfiction. Psycho-Cybernetics is one of them and that is quite a marvel!

  • Is Psycho-Cybernetics a good book?

    Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics (1960) is a brilliant book to help anyone learn how to extract themselves from a negative rut and achieve new peaks of success and happiness. It is a cornerstone of the self-improvement genre and shares highly effective strategies to help one understand the cause of their fears and failures. And then show them how to act with courage, self-confidence, and self-acceptance to build a more fulfilling life.

    Maxwell Maltz was a well-known American cosmetic surgeon of his era. But rather than his surgical feats, the world remembers him now for writing a self-help book that Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy borrow from. It is a book that gets counted among the 50 Best Self-Help classics of all time.

    Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960 while he still practiced as a plastic surgeon. The book became a bestseller. And since then, it has never gone OUP (out of print). Even today, walk into any bookstore and you will find it stacked on their shelves.

  • What is cybernetics?

    Cybernetics is the system of instructions, actions, and feedback of automated machines that get them to fulfill their tasks effectively. Translated from Greek, cybernetics means “a helmsman who steers his ship to port.”

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

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