Psycho Cybernetics, published in 1960, provides a framework of how the mind operates as a goal striving mechanism. The book draws insights from both machine principles and self image psychology to help readers understand this system of ideas so as to incorporate new habits of thinking, imagining, remembering and acting, to improve their own self image and achieve their goals.  

The author, Maxwell Maltz was a cosmetic surgeon who also wrote several books both fiction and non-fiction, with Psycho Cybernetics being the forerunner and a foundation of many of the self help books published in the modern era.

Read this book summary in 17 Minutes

Psycho Cybernetics Summary

CYBERNETICS – A branch of science which involves the comparative study of automatic control systems in machines, with the human brain and nervous system.  

The word “cybernetics” comes from a Greek word that means, literally, “the steersman.” Servo-mechanisms are so constructed that they automatically “steer” their way to a goal, target, or “answer.” 

 PSYCHO CYBERNETICS – The principles of cybernetics as applied to the human brain.

“The science of cybernetics does not tell us that man is a machine but that man has and uses a machine.” Maxwell Maltz

Book Summary



INSIGHT #1 Psycho Cybernetic Theory Explained…

 “The new science of cybernetics has furnished us with convincing proof that the so-called subconscious mind is not a “mind” at all, but a mechanism—a goal striving “servo-mechanism” consisting of the brain and nervous system, which is used by, and directed by the mind.

The latest and most usable concept is that man does not have two “minds,” but a mind or consciousness, that operates an automatic, goal-striving machine. This automatic, goal-striving machine functions very similarly to the way that electronic servo-mechanisms function, as far as basic principles are concerned. But it is much more marvelous, much more complex, than any computer or guided missile ever conceived by man.

This Creative Mechanism within you is impersonal. It will work automatically and impersonally to achieve goals of success and happiness, or unhappiness and failure, depending on the goals that you set for it. Present it with “success goals,” and it functions as a Success Mechanism. Present it with negative goals, and it operates just as impersonally, and just as faithfully, as a Failure Mechanism.” [p31; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]


INSIGHT #2 The Face of Personality

Whilst performing countless surgeries as a plastic surgeon, Maltz recalls witnessing significant changes in the personality of many of his patients following the correction of a facial defect.

In most cases, he adds: “a person who had a ‘freakish feature’ corrected by surgery experienced (usually within 21 days) an immediate rise in self esteem and confidence.”

However, there were some patients, whom even after having their disfigurement surgically corrected, continued to think, feel and act just as if they still had a disfigured face.

This gave Maltz deeper insight into the subject of personality transformation, as he elaborates:

“…reconstruction of the physical image itself was not “the” real key to changes in personality. There was something else, which was usually influenced by facial surgery, but sometimes not. When this “something else” was reconstructed, the person himself changed. When this “something else” was not reconstructed, the person himself remained the same, although his physical features might be radically different.

 It was as if personality itself had a “face.” This nonphysical “face of personality” seemed to be the real key to personality change. If it remained scarred, distorted, “ugly,” or inferior, the person himself acted out this role in his behavior regardless of the changes in physical appearance. If this “face of personality” could be reconstructed, if old emotional scars could be removed, then the person himself changed, even without facial plastic surgery. [p14; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

 Further exploration led him to conclude that it was the self image, that is – an individual’s mental picture of himself, which was the key to personality transformation. In his words, after any facial defects were corrected by plastic surgery, positive psychological changes proceed only if there is a corresponding correction of the individual’s self-image.


INSIGHT #3 The Self Image

The self image, explained by the author, Maxwell Maltz:

“Whether we realize it or not, each of us carries about with us a mental blueprint or picture of ourselves. It may be vague and ill-defined to our conscious gaze. In fact, it may not be consciously recognizable at all. But it is there, complete down to the last detail.

 This self-image is our own conception of the “sort of person I am.” It has been built up from our own beliefs about ourselves. But most of these beliefs about ourselves have unconsciously been formed from our past experiences, our successes and failures, our humiliations, our triumphs, and the way other people have reacted to us, especially in early childhood. From all these we mentally construct a “self” (or a picture of a self). Once an idea or a belief about ourselves goes into this picture, it becomes “true,” as far as we personally are concerned. We do not question its validity, but proceed to act upon it just as if it were true.” [p22; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

Maltz puts forth 2 additional points about the self image:

1. The way you think, how you feel and your actions are always consistent with your self image.

You will act by the way that you perceive yourself to be.

“You cannot act otherwise,” says Maltz.

The person who conceives themselves as a failure will find some way to fail, in spite of their good intentions, or even willpower, even if an opportunity is dumped on their lap. Those who see themselves as victims of injustice will invariably find circumstances to verify their opinion.

A student who believes that they are simply not a ‘math’s person’ will find that their grades reflect this opinion. Tell that very student that it is not because he lacks the abilities to do well in mathematics but because of the way he ‘thinks’ which is the root cause of his poor grades – and he will doubt your sanity! After all, he has proof – his grades!

And yet, as Maltz writes: 

“Because of this objective “proof” it very seldom occurs to a person that his trouble lies in his self-image or his own evaluation of himself.”

2. The Self Image can be changed.

“Numerous case histories have shown that one is never too young or too old to change his self-image and thereby start to live a new life.

 One of the reasons it has seemed so difficult for a person to change his habits, his personality, or his way of life has been that heretofore nearly all efforts at change have been directed to the circumference of the self, so to speak, rather than to the center.”

Maltz elaborates that positive thinking alone is not effective if it is used as a patch on an old self image. In other words, you can’t think positively about any situation as long as you hold a negative conception of your ‘self.’

“…almost miraculous changes have occurred both in students’ grades and in the earning capacity of salesmen when they were prevailed upon to change their self-images.”


INSIGHT #4 Our Built-In Guidance System

Every living thing has a built-in guidance system or in other words, is equipped with a goal-striving device. This system is used to accomplish the goal of life, which in simple terms, is “to live.”

For animals, this goal “to live” is limited to finding food and shelter, fending off enemies, and procreation… to ensure the survival of its species.

A bird does not need to be taught how to build a nest, it does not need to take courses in navigation, nor does it need to read books by other explorer birds to help them map out the warm areas of the earth. Nonetheless, the bird knows when cold weather is imminent and is able to navigate by itself to an exact location where the climate is warmer.

A squirrel is never taught how to gather nuts, nor is it taught that it needs to store them for winter. A squirrel which is born in spring has never experienced winter. However, during fall, the squirrel can be observed storing nuts to be eaten during the winter.

When attempting to explain such things, Maltz points out that animals have certain instincts which guide them. When one analyzes these instincts, one can infer that these instincts help the animal to successfully cope with its environment. In short, this is the animals ‘Success Instinct.’

Humans also have a Success Instinct and it differs from that of animals in such that besides mere survival, we have spiritual as well as emotional needs. Most importantly, what differentiates our success instinct from that of animals is our ability to imagine, as Maltz clarifies:

“Animals cannot select their goals. Their goals (self-preservation and procreation) are preset, so to speak. And their success mechanism is limited to these built-in goal-images, which we call ‘instincts.’

 Man, on the other hand, has something animals don’t: Creative Imagination. Thus man of all creatures is more than a creature, he is also a creator. With his imagination he can formulate a variety of goals. Man alone can direct his Success Mechanism by the use of imagination, or imaging ability. [pg30; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

Before going into more details about the Success Instinct, here’s something a lot of us are familiar with, what Maltz identifies as the Failure Mechanism. The following insight explains this further…


INSIGHT #5 The Failure Mechanism

When we worry, Maltz tells us, what happens is that we picture an undesirable end result, dwell on it excessively -all the while entertaining the thoughts as a ‘possibility.’

This ‘habit of worrying,’ causes us to imagine negative outcomes in our mind almost automatically. Thus, by continuously dwelling on these negative outcomes, the mental images become more vivid.

Over time, we experience emotions such as fear and anxiety because these emotions are appropriate in light of the undesirable results that we are worrying about!

Therefore, as Maltz enlightens us:

 “Why not imagine yourself to be successful?”

“If we picture ourselves performing in a certain manner, it is nearly the same as the actual performance.”

This is because the mind cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and one that is vividly imagined.


INSIGHT #6 Five Principles of The Success Mechanism

i. “Your built-in Success Mechanism must have a goal or “target.” This goal, or target, must be conceived of as “already in existence—now” either in actual or potential form. It operates by either (1) steering you to a goal already in existence or (2) “discovering” something already in existence.”

ii. The automatic mechanism is teleological, that is, it operates or must be oriented to “end results” goals. Do not be discouraged because the “means whereby” may not be apparent. It is the function of the automatic mechanism to supply the means whereby when you supply the goal. Think in terms of the end result, and the means whereby will often take care of themselves.” 

iii. “Do not be afraid of making mistakes, or of temporary failures. All servo-mechanisms achieve a goal by negative feedback, or by going forward, making mistakes, and immediately correcting course.”  

iv. “Skill learning of any kind is accomplished by trial and error, mentally correcting aim after an error, until a “successful” motion, movement, or performance has been achieved. After that, further learning, and continued success, is accomplished by forgetting the past errors, and remembering the successful response, so that it can be imitated.” 

v. “You must learn to trust your Creative Mechanism to do its work and not “jam it” by becoming too concerned or too anxious as to whether it will work or not, or by attempting to force it by too much conscious effort. You must “let it” work, rather than “make it” work. This trust is necessary because your Creative Mechanism operates below the level of consciousness, and you cannot “know” what is going on beneath the surface.” [p47; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

Applying the Principles of Psycho Cybernetics

“Your program for getting more living out of life consists in, first of all, learning something about this Creative Mechanism, or automatic guidance system within you and how to use it as a Success Mechanism, rather than as a Failure Mechanism.

 The method itself consists in learning, practicing, and experiencing new habits of thinking, imagining, remembering, and acting in order to (1) develop an adequate and realistic self-image, and (2) use your Creative Mechanism to bring success and happiness in achieving particular goals.

If you can remember, worry, or tie your shoe, you can succeed.” – Maxwell Maltz


This ‘new habit of thinking’ Maltz outlines is to do with adopting rational thinking. Before showing you an example, here are two key takeaways that I found to be insightful. The first…

The rational and logical conscious mind can control the unconscious mechanism.

 As Maltz’ explains:

“It is conscious thinking that is the “control knob” of your unconscious machine. It was by conscious thought, though perhaps irrational and unrealistic, that the unconscious machine developed its negative and inappropriate reaction patterns, and it is by conscious rational thought that the automatic reaction patterns can be changed.” 

And second…

Our beliefs and interpretations of the environment precede the emotional reactions which follow, not the other way round!

Here’s an example to clarify:

If you’re hiking somewhere in the wilderness and encounter a grizzly bear… you don’t decide to become afraid, the fear response that you experience is both automatic and appropriate.

Furthermore, you may think that this reaction was caused due to ‘emotion’ rather than ideas, however, as Maltz explains: it was an idea (information received from the outside world and evaluated by the forebrain) which sparked the emotional reaction.

Thus, it is the idea or the belief which is the true causative agent rather than the emotional reactions which follow, as the author clarifies:

“You act, and feel, not according to what things are really like, but according to the image your mind holds of what they are like. You have certain mental images of yourself, your world, and the people around you, and you behave as though these images were the truth, the reality, rather than the things they represent. “

Let us suppose, for example, that the man on te trail had not met a real bear, but a movie actor dressed in a bear costume. If he thought and imagined the actor to be a bear, his emotional and nervous reactions would have been exactly the same. Or let us suppose he met a large shaggy dog, which his fear-ridden imagination mistook for a bear. Again, he would react automatically to what he believed to be true concerning himself and his environment. [p55; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

This follows that if an individual’s ideas and mental images concerning him are somewhat distorted or unrealistic, then his reaction to the environment will likewise be inappropriate.

Our automatic responses, beliefs and interpretations are often unrealistic and irrational as a result of bad ‘thinking habits.’ One way to counter this is by utilizing rational thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from the book which details the process:

“Is there some task that you would like to do, some channel in which you would like to express yourself, but you hang back feeling that “I can’t?”

Ask yourself, “Why?”

“Why do I believe that I can’t?”

Then ask yourself: “Is this belief based on a fact or an assumption —or a false conclusion?”

Then ask yourself the questions:

  • Is there any rational reason for such a belief?
  • Could it be that I am mistaken in this belief?
  • Would I come to the same conclusion about some other person in a similar situation?
  • Why should I continue to act and feel as if this were true if there is no good reason to believe it?”



  • Mental Imagery

“Imagination rules the world.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Regardless of the method of therapy used, the crucial prerequisite to personality transformation, Maltz tells us – is that before a person can change, he must be able to see himself in the new role.

Another important point is that the mind cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and one that is vividly imagined.

Here’s an excerpt from Psycho Cybernetics which outlines a summary on mental imaging:

“Set aside a period of 30 minutes each day when you can be alone and undisturbed. Relax and make yourself as comfortable as possible. Now close your eyes and exercise your imagination.” 

Many people find they get better results if they imagine themselves sitting before a large motion picture screen—and imagine that they are seeing a motion picture of themselves. The important thing is to make these pictures as vivid and as detailed as possible. You want your mental pictures to approximate actual experience as much as possible. The way to do this is to pay attention to small details, sights, sounds, objects, in your imagined environment.” [p64; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

 Note that simply imagining alone won’t get you to your target, as the author clarifies:

You are not relieved thereafter from effort and work, but your efforts are used to carry you forward toward your goal, rather than in the futile mental conflict that results when you want and try to do one thing, but picture to yourself something else.”

  • Role-Playing

 “When the imagination and will power are in conflict, are antagonistic, it is always the imagination which wins, without any exception.” – Émile Coué

Maltz explains role-playing:

“…simply imagining yourself in various sales situations, then solving them in your mind, until you know what to say and what to do whenever the situations come up in real life.  

A role-playing salesman, at night when he is alone, will create these situations. He will imagine the prospect throwing the widest kind of curves at him. Then he will work out the best answer to them…

No matter what the situation is, you can prepare for it beforehand by means of imagining yourself and your prospect face-to-face while he is raising objections and creating problems and you are handling them properly.”  [p57; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

  • Shadow Boxing

“Imagination of all man’s faculties is the most God-like.” – Glenn Clark

An Excerpt from Psycho Cybernetics:

“… Jim Corbett, the renowned World Heavyweight Champion boxer, made the word “shadowboxing” popular. When asked how he developed the perfect control and timing for his left jab, which he used to cut John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strong-boy, to ribbons, Corbett replied that he had practiced throwing his left at his own image in the mirror more than 10,000 times in preparation for the bout.

Sir Harry Lauder, the famous Scottish actor and comedian, once admitted that he had practiced a certain routine 10,000 times in private before ever performing publicly. Lauder was, in effect, “shadowboxing” with an imaginary audience.

 The most common form of shadowboxing for public speakers is to deliver their speech to their own image in the mirror.

 The result is that they go into the crisis of actual competition without appearing to have any nerves at all. They become “human icicles,” immune to pressure, not worrying about how they will perform, but depending on “muscle memory” to execute the various motions that they have learned.” [p221; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]



Learning something new or acquiring a skill is accomplished by trial and error. In essence, we miss the mark, remember the degree of error and make necessary corrections on the next trial until a successful attempt is accomplished. This successful attempt is then consciously remembered and imitated on future trials.

Similarly, when striving towards a goal, Dr. Maltz recommends getting into the habit of remembering past successes, and forgetting failures instead of renumerating on them as we tend to do all too often.

He elaborates:

 “Yet, what do most of us do? We destroy our self-confidence by remembering past failures and forgetting all about past successes. We not only remember failures, we impress them on our minds with emotion. We condemn ourselves. We flay ourselves with shame and remorse (both are highly egotistical, self-centered emotions). And self-confidence disappears.

 It doesn’t matter how many times you have failed in the past. What matters is the successful attempt, which should be remembered, reinforced, and dwelt upon.”



“It is in the nature of things that we progress by acting, making mistakes, and correcting course. A guided torpedo arrives at its target by making a series of mistakes and continually correcting its course. You cannot correct your course if you are standing still.” 

Maltz advises that whilst practicing mental imagery,  you not only see yourself achieving goals, but also picture yourself responding assertively in the face of obstacles; as he writes:

 “…see yourself acting and reacting appropriately, successfully, ideally. It doesn’t matter how you acted yesterday. You do not need to try to have faith you will act in the ideal way tomorrow. Your nervous system will take care of that in time—if you continue to practice. See yourself acting, feeling, “being,” as you want to be. Do not say to yourself, “I am going to act this way tomorrow.” Just say to yourself: “I am going to imagine myself acting this way now—for thirty minutes today.

 This exercise builds new “memories” or stored data into your mid-brain and central nervous system. It builds a new image of self. After practicing it for a time, you will be surprised to find yourself “acting differently,” more or less automatically and spontaneously—without trying.” [p64; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics]

“…since man is a goal-striving being, he is functioning naturally and normally when he is oriented toward some positive goal and striving toward some desirable goal.

Man maintains his balance, poise, and sense of security only as he is moving forward—or seeking.” – Maxwell Maltz

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