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 15 Minutes

Psycho Cybernetics Summary


  • Similar to the basic principles of electronic servo-mechanisms, your mind operates a goal striving machine.
  • This goal striving machine is impersonal, it will operate as a success mechanism or failure mechanism, depending on the operator (you), and the goals for which you set for it.
  • Like a guided missile, your goal striving mechanism needs a target to steer towards, this is your end goal / vision.
  • “Man does not simply find success or come to failure, he carries their seeds around in his personality and character.”
  • Your self image sets the limits of what you can and cannot do, in other words -it is the area of the possible.
  • “You will act like the sort of person you conceive yourself to be.”
  • Whilst striving towards your goal, you need to expand your self- image. 
  • Applying the principles of Psycho Cybernetics consists of, firstly: “learn 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. (read insights 4, 5 and 6)
  • Second: Form a realistic self-image by “practicing new habits of thinking, imagining, remembering, and acting.” (read Part II: Practical Applications)
  • “Times will change for the better when you change.” 
psycho cybernetics summary


Maxwell Maltz 

Psycho Cybernetics 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 Summary]

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 Summary]

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]

maxwell maltz psycho cybernetics summary

Maxwell Maltz

Psycho Cybernetics Summary



This is one of the key take-aways from the book Psycho Cybernetics. Maltz tells us that – we act and feel not according to what thing are really like, but according to the image that our mind holds of what they are like.

He clarifies:

“The human brain and nervous system are engineered to react automatically and appropriately to the problems and challenges in the environment. For example, a man does not need to stop and think that self-survival requires that he run if he meets a grizzly bear on a trail. He does not need to decide to become afraid. The fear response is both automatic and appropriate. First, it makes him want to flee. The fear then triggers bodily mechanisms that “soup up” his muscles so that he can run faster than he has ever run before.

 All this, of course, is nothing new. Most of us learned it in high school. What we have not been so quick to realize, however, is that the brain and nervous system that react automatically to the environment are the same brain and nervous system that tell us what the environment is. The reactions of the man meeting the bear are commonly thought of as due to “emotion” rather than to ideas. Yet it was an idea—information received from the outside world, and evaluated by the forebrain—that sparked the so-called emotional reactions.

 Let us suppose, for example, that the man on the 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. 

Thus, it was basically idea or belief that was the true causative agent, rather than emotion—which came as a result. In short, the man on the trail reacted to what he thought or believed or imagined the environment to be.

 It follows that if our ideas and mental images concerning ourselves are distorted or unrealistic, then our reaction to our environment will likewise be inappropriate.”  [p55; Maxwell Maltz, Psycho Cybernetics.]

Thus, 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 Psycho Cybernetics 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 Summary]

  • 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 summary]


“…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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