Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz: Summary That Works


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. 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 the Generation X.

In that list above, only the last two are nonfiction. And that is quite a marvel!

Psycho-Cybernetics is a nonfiction book that continues to live and breathe through six decades of readers.

Now, let’s dive into the wisdom and insights from the book in a five-part-summary:

Summary Part 1: Who Do You See In The Mirror

Maxwell Maltz was an American cosmetic surgeon of another era. But rather than his surgical feats, the world remembers him 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: A New Way to Get More Living out of Life in 1960 while he was still a practicing plastic surgeon.

The book fast became a bestseller. And it has never gone OUP (out of print) since the first publication. Walk into any respected bookstore today, and it is on their shelves.

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

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

Those answers tell you who do 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.

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

Now, that image can be mostly positive, overtly negative, or anything in between; that’s not important. What is important is that you keep acting according to the image you create of yourself.

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

Maltz explains it with an example from his friend’s life. His friend, Dr. Alfred Adler, a time-honored psychiatrist and neurologist and founder of the School of Individual Psychology, was poor at math 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. As a result, he kept getting low grades in math. It filled his mind with a sense of inferiority complex.

Until one day, when his teacher put a complex equation on the board, and he suddenly understood how to solve it. This incident increased his confidence in maths.

This incident led him to break his cage and finally change his image of himself.

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

Summary Part 2: Change The One In The Mirror

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. And the conclusions you draw from them, you falsely remember as facts. These become your beliefs.

Experiences ⇒ Conclusions ⇒ Beliefs ⇒ Self-image

The opposite is also true. By interpreting your experience in a positive light, you can have positive self-beliefs. You can do this by re-thinking out the whole experience rationally and logically.

And once you change your beliefs, you change your self-image.

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 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 new concept of how our brains work. He held the human brain works like a machine. Just like a machine, if there is positive feedback, the brain keeps doing what it has been doing. Only when there is negative feedback, the brain automatically changes its behavior and ‘corrects its course.’

Once you have accomplished a correct or “successful response,” the brain stores it as a memory for future use.

And when you face a similar task again, your brain simply pulls out the memory and makes you go through the learned behavior. 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.

One such insight is humans have a built-in mechanism for success. Maltz advises us to start with our wonderful capability of imagination to activate this mechanism, .

Your brain cannot tell the difference between imagined and real experience. As a result, it reacts according to what you believe or imagine being true.

During the 1950s, research by Dr. Theodore Xenophon Barber at American University in Washington found that 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 they believe it, their brains stop processing the pain signals from the nerves.

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.

Psycho-Cybernetics: Maxwell Maltz (Audible Audiobook)

So, once you train your brain to believe you can succeed, you start to see more successes coming your way.

Summary Part 3: The Whimpering Dogs

Curiously, Martin SeligmanFather of Modern Positive Psychology, reached a similar conclusion in his early research on “learned helplessness.” In a series of experiments he began in 1967, Seligman found when a dog is given repeated painful electric shocks while kept inside a closed box — from which they cannot escape — the dog learns this “helplessness.”

Later, when these dogs receive similar shocks — but also provided with ways to escape the box — they simply stay there, enduring the shocks. Even when they see a low-height partition in the box that they can easily jump over, they do not escape.

Instead, these dogs act from their learned behavior and lie down in their boxes, whimpering helplessly. Their brains tell them that no matter what they do, they can not stop the shocks. So, believing they have no control over the situation, they remain in their box crying helplessly.

Instead, these dogs act from their learned behavior and lie down in their boxes, whimpering helplessly. Their brains tell them that no matter what they do, they can not stop the shocks. So, believing they have no control over the situation, they remain in their box crying helplessly.

Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response, that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.

Seligman suggested in his seminal paper that such a learned behavior can cause depression and other related mental illnesses.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Stress Management, researcher P. C. Henry wrote that people who perceive events as uncontrollable are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behavior. It could make them, for example, neglect healthy habits like diet, exercise, and medical treatment.

In later experiments, Hammack and his team found increased serotonin activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) of the brain plays a critical role in learned helplessness.

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

Seligman wrote about it in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. In that, he writes:

The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.


 I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable.

Summary Part 4: Maltzing Into 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.

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 can push the horn buttons, but he cannot push your buttons unless you allow him to.

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 did this: he decided he’ll 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.

Maltz says a few things about happiness which will 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 towards 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.”

Summary Part 5: Final Words

Finally, save in your mind these words Maltz wrote:

One of the commonest causes of unhappiness among my patients is that they 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.

Invariably, they are disappointed. Happiness is a mental habit, a mental attitude, and if it is not learned or practiced in the present, it is never experienced.

It cannot be made contingent upon solving some external problem. When one problem is solved, another appears to take its place. Life is a series of problems.

If you are to be happy at all, you must be happy – period! Not happy because of.

Remember, only you know what makes you really happy. Don’t let a false self-image decide that for you.

Finally, here’s a video to get a different angle to look at the book summary:

Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz - In-Depth Summary
Psycho-Cybernetics – Summarized

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. Writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.

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