The Self-Help Industry

One sunny day when I was 19 or so, I came across a very intriguing book.  It was written by a tall man named Anthony Robbins, and it informed me that I had unlimited power.  Things that can be done by one human being, it said, could be done by any other.  It’s a mere matter of strategy; find someone who was once in the position you are in, but but got to where you want to be, and simply copy what they did.  This greatly interested me, for like many others I held fanciful dreams of the many incredible things I wanted to do.  At the time, I was greatly interested in becoming a famous rockstar.  I actually made a plan using this book, and started following the steps through.

That plan didn’t quite work out (although I can still play a few Weezer songs fairly well on guitar).  But what’s interesting, as I look back on that experience, is how easily I bought into those ideas.  Without question, I accepted the idea that I could be whatever I wanted.  I read many self-help books after that one, all with a similar level of acceptance.

My reaction did make sense; we all want to believe we can attain our loftiest desires.  If someone writes a book saying “I can get you those things”, it’s going to sell – no question.  People are going to believe it because they want to believe it.  Not to mention the fact that something in print carries an automatic air of authority.

I’m obviously not alone in my reaction.  There are many books of this kind, all claiming the secret to success or the means to avail you of some malady or other.  In 2003, sales of self-improvement products reached $8.56 billion in all formats.  That’s in the US alone.  This industry is massive, which raises a very important question:

Do self-help books work?  Do they deliver what they promise?

(OK two questions)

Unfortunately, this is pretty much impossible to say.  Do they work at what?  Each book makes a different claim.  The authors of individual books typically provide no support for their advice.  Sometimes, rarely, you’ll get references linking you to evidence behind the advice.  This usually happens because a psychologist has been studying an area for years and then decides to write a book about it (eg, The Luck Factor, Learned Optimism).  You don’t get people wanting to write a self-help book, but thinking “Wait!  Maybe I’d better test all this out first!”, and spending the next decade doing research.  They just write the book and people buy it.  

“The overall impact of the self-help industry is unknown.”

Buyers tend to be repeat customers too, and just like myself read several self-help books, which makes it even harder to measure any overall impact.  No studies have been done on the industry as a whole, and it’s impossible to know the impact it has.

Some self-help critics (for example, Steve Salerno) try to use indirect evidence to make a case against self-help: things like increases in psychiatric drug use over the years.  The aim is to raise the question: why are these things so, if self-help books are having a positive impact on society?  This is thought provoking, but ultimately it’s impossible to link self-help to any other statistic without studying it directly.  It’s a (cleverly disguised) 100% complete guess.  

Some self-help sub-fields have had attention in journals; mostly alternative therapies like homeopathy.  But the more general “self-improvement” variety of book is basically untested.  So we have to take a different approach to answer these questions, starting with another question…

Is it possible for self-help books to work?

Let’s start from the scratch: Is it possible for written advice to have a positive impact?  Obviously I think it is, or this website wouldn’t exist.  But to what extent is this true?

It depends on the specific claim being made.  There are self-help books making big claims; the cure for depression, end to phobias, and remedies for all sorts of serious conditions.  For things like this, I would say no, it isn’t possible.  Or at least, it’s highly unlikely.  Even regular therapy sessions with trained and experienced professionals doesn’t get the results that some of these books claim.  

There are many curable mental health issues, given the proper treatment.  However, a major factor in successful treatment is the relationship between the client and therapist.  Some studies even suggest this is more important than the style of therapy used.  In other words, the most important part of the treatment is exactly the part you miss in a book.

“There’s no doubt written advice can be beneficial. There’s also no doubt it can be useless. How would you tell?”

Whenever you see a big and unbelievable claim, be cautious.  Find out what the professionals in that area do, and what results they get for their clients.  If you see a book telling you it can get you millions from investments, look at what other investors do.  How much do professionals make?  Or the people they advise?  Don’t just look at the top 5% either!  If the book claims it can get you much more than the average that the pros get, ask yourself: why?  If someone who’s worked in the field for years gets a certain amount from investing, how could you get 20 times more from reading a book?  Is everyone really just missing out on this one vital piece of information?  It’d be unlikely, wouldn’t it?

So larger claims you can safely ignore.  What about smaller claims, or books on general self-improvement, where the aim is just to take you up one step, rather than a whole flight of stairs in one leap?  Here there’s no doubt that written words can work – loads of studies are done by post or over the internet, and find positive results.  

But that doesn’t help us much, because there’s also no doubt that written words can be useless, even detrimental.  And there isn’t a professional field to compare these claims against.

Once again, we have been lead to another question…

What is the quality of the self-help industry likely to be?

Think about this:

There are a LOT of self-help books out there.  Over 3000 new ones come out each year.  By the law of averages, there has to be some good ones, some bad ones, some average ones.  And because there are no entry requirements to write a self-help book – no credentials needed, no peer-review, no need to support advice with evidence, etc. – the variance in quality is likely to be quite large.  

If quality isn’t controlled by an external body, then the only people who can control it are the buyers and sellers.  Either the authors employ some kind of quality control system, or the buyers discriminate when buying.  Let’s look at these:

The authors – This is unlikely – I’ve already mentioned the lack of testing on the part of the authors.  Quality control just doesn’t seem to happen often.  Even simple backing ideas up with evidence doesn’t happen much.  Then there are examples of authors displaying unscrupulous practices in the creation and promotion of their work.  I won’t go into details of who and how, but the controversy is easy to find if you look for it.

The buyers – Do buyers discriminate? This is hard to say.  It’s probably true to a point, but not to the point of having any effect on the industry overall.  Again there is no evidence, but I can’t imagine any conscious discrimination that could outweigh hype and mass-marketing.  Plus it’s easy to conceive a way that books that don’t produce the results they offer could do well; maybe they are just hope-inducing, with all the positive motivational statements in them, and that’s why people keep buying more books. 

So it seems possible, even likely, that there are more bad self-help books than good ones.  But…

Is that a problem?  It’s all just harmless fun isn’t it?

Well, not really.  These aren’t cook books – they are not saying “put these ingredients in a pan, heat them up, and eat it”.  They are saying “this is how the world is, this is how you are, and this is how to live your life.”  If the author doesn’t have good reasons for saying things like this, they shouldn’t be saying them at all.  

It’s unethical to use a position of authority to spread a certain model of the world, without sufficient evidence to back it up.  Your results in any particular area are only as good as your model; if your model’s wrong then your results will be bad.  When it comes to life in general, a bad model leads to bad decisions.  An author couldn’t know the accuracy of their model unless they test it.  Freedom of speech is  a great thing, but it doesn’t absolve responsibility for what you said!  

I find it quite telling that few self-help books are based on huge research efforts.  In fact, you don’t need any idea of the research that has been done in an area!  That seems very strange.  If you’re an author writing about how some strange alternative therapy that develops, say, self-confidence, shouldn’t you at least be familiar with the science of that area?  Shouldn’t you address it, and present the reasons that your ideas are better?  Isn’t it irresponsible, arrogant, or negligent to simply ignore what’s already out there?  

There are good and bad books.  If you can’t tell the difference, you’re in trouble – you’ll get swept along by hype and authority, and accept almost any information into your model of the world.  There needs to be a filter in place, before that information gets to your brain.  If you have a good filter, you’re potentially able to avoid the bad books, and even pull the one or two good paragraphs from them and ignore the rest.  

If self-help authors are unwilling to control the quality of their products, it’s down to the readers to do it.  If Self-help buyers were all trained to evaluate arguments, and they all did research before buying, they would be able to separate the weed from the chaff.  Weaker books would die off by natural selection, authors would be forced to up their game.  On the larger scale, this would be very hard, if not impossible to do.  On an individual level though, many readers would benefit from making their next purchase a book on critical thinking.  If you’re a self-help reader, seriously consider this.  It will give you a filter, and improve the purchases you make after that.

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4 Comments

  • Hi Warren

    I think that you and my boyfriend will get on like a house on fire! He is all for testing and backing things up. He doesn’t easily simply accept things.

    I take what I like and find useful from any self-help books that I read. Perhaps I was less like that when I first started delving into this area of the bookshelf.

    I have one friend who has a library of self-help books and I have one friend who is stuck on the first one that he evern came across and read. (which has been for the last 15 years or so!)
    So, here are two extremes – always searching and completely devoted to one view.

    I suppose one can say that at least there are books out there that can give people other (helpful or unhelpful) views on the world. It has the potential to open some windows or doors. But, I agree, they can also do harm. As can anything I guess.

    In what way do some of the religious texts differ? (Ooo, please no fire from that comment)

    Juliet

  • Warren Davies says:

    Juliet,

    “In what way do some of the religious texts differ? (Ooo, please no fire from that comment)”

    Haha, don’t worry that’s not flammable around here! Good point I agree with you, you should read every text with a critical mind, no matter how popular it might be. As long as you don’t go too far and stop being open-minded, that is.

    Warren

  • BradM says:

    In the end, the “self-” thing is tacked on for a reason. It’s SELF-help, SELF-esteem, SELF-confidence, etc. That means that when push comes to shove, it’s not about the book in your hands; it’s about your willingness to really use the lessons learned.

  • Warren Davies says:

    Brad,

    I agree; assuming the lessons in the book are worth learning, of course…

    Warren

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