Crap-Detecting Self-Help Books: What to Avoid, Who to Trust

Self-help books have a lousy reputation. Dwight Garner — a critic for the New York Times Book Review — said it well after forcing himself to consume several of them:

These books are padded. The vital information in all three, about 900 pages combined, could be edited down and tattooed on my palm. They’re jargony and slogany. None made me laugh, or even smile.

Philosopher Alain de Botton acknowledges this:

There is no more ridiculed genre than the self-help book. Intellectually-minded people universally scorn the idea of them. Self-help books don’t appear on reading lists at any prestigious university, they’re not reviewed by highbrow journals and it’s inconceivable that a major literary prize could ever be awarded to one of their authors.

The above quotes often come to mind when I pick up a book written by someone with instructions for changing my behavior.

On the one hand, I feel a sense of possibility and hunger for new ideas.

At the same time, I brace for disappointment.

Panning for gold

It’s true that many self-help books are trashy. And yet a precious minority of them are filled with ideas that can make a profound and positive difference in our lives. The trick is to find these works.

Remember that self-help comes from an ancient and venerable tradition. Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius all wanted to help readers solve problems, make effective decisions, and live well in the light of death. Books such as Seneca’s On Anger and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations “are among the greatest works of literature of any nation or era,” Botton notes.

Our continuing challenge is to spot signs of bogus self-help. With these red flags in mind, we can light a path to authors who merit our trust.

Knowing what to avoid

The worst self-help books are written by ego-driven authors. Their work is not data-driven. You won’t find references to published studies, theory, or even compelling anecdotal evidence.

This can lead to some serious problems.

Harmful content

One egregious example is Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret. It presents the “law” of attraction — the idea that you can get what you want simply by thinking about it a lot.

For example, Byrne quotes a woman who claims that she healed herself from breast cancer by believing that she was healthy.

The logical implication here is that if you develop a disease such as such cancer, it’s your fault: You just didn’t think positively enough.

Worse yet, if you decide to forego medical treatment and depend on the law of attraction instead, you could seriously harm yourself.

Fortunately The Secret has been widely parodied. This includes a Saturday Night Live skit where actors chastise a starving man in Darfur for his negative thinking.

In his book Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, psychologist Timothy Wilson points out another example of harmful self-help content: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD).

Advocates of CISD encourage people who experience a traumatic event to air their feelings as soon as possible with a trained facilitator.

Sounds logical, right? After all, we’re often warned about the consequences of suppressing our feelings — especially painful ones. Wilson notes that police departments across the United States were trained to offer CISD.

However, research reveals that CISD can actually harm people by forcing them to narrate traumatic events over and over again.

A more effective intervention is one described by psychologist James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal: On four consecutive nights, sit down with your journal and put your deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event in writing. It works best if you do this alone, with the only facilitator being your personal journal.

This is a potent reminder to question our assumptions about self-help. Even techniques that sound like they just should work can hurt us.

Untested content

Doing literature reviews and scientific research is a hassle. Many self-help authors simply don’t bother. They don’t know — or don’t care — about creating sound theory and offering credible evidence for their ideas.

The problems with untested content are so egregious and widespread that I can only touch on them here. One useful treatment of this topic is a classic series of blog posts by April Hamilton about self-published nonfiction books:

In short, April urges us not to trust self-help authors who:

  • Lack credentials to write about their topics.
  • Base their books on a handful of anecdotes or apocryphal stories.
  • Mistake correlation or coincidence for causation.
  • Present no evidence of replicated results — that their instructions have worked for people other than the author.
  • Give instructions that fail to describe concrete behaviors and rely on isolated “tips” rather than unified processes.
  • Load their book with jargon and “baroque terminology.”
  • Include disclaimers so broad that they essentially invalidate the book.

Much of what April describes is cognitive bias — the fact that we are prone to self-delusion.

There is a vast literature on this subject. Here I will simply mention a few cognitive biases that plague self-help books:

  • Confirmation bias — relying on information that confirms our existing beliefs and dismissing anything that contradicts those beliefs.
  • Survivorship bias — basing our conclusions on a sub-group of people rather than the entire group (for example, the small percentage of people who complete a treatment program rather than the large percentage who drop out early).
  • Sunk-cost fallacy — defending an idea, behavior, project, or product simply because we have already invested time, money, or emotional energy in it.
  • Memory distortions — stories that morph mysteriously as they are retold over time, with key details that are discounted or entirely forgotten.

Generic content

Writers and speakers are often appealing to the masses. Authors splatter a lot of ideas on their audiences, cross their fingers, and hope that the content resonates with as many people as possible.

This is about as precise as painting a barn door by throwing open cans of paint at it. Individual differences get ignored. Self-help techniques that work for someone else might fall flat for you.

Orin Davis is a psychologist who has a lot to say about this. Check out his talk Help Yourself to Self-Help.

Derivative content

Sean Blanda describes this problem perfectly in a post about the bullshit industrial complex. He calls out bloggers who reference the same old tips, strategies, and examples — all gleaned from second- and third-hand sources, and all presented as original ideas.

In short, what you get from such authors is a diluted mix — random mash-ups of personal stories and uninformed opinion. Often the result is a vanity piece, a thinly-disguised memoir or exercise in platform-building.

And yet many of these authors are charming and charismatic. Some are riveting presenters who leave you feeling entertained, energized, and inspired — at least temporarily. This just makes them all the more dangerous.

Knowing who to trust

To avoid self-help bullshit, go directly to data-driven authors — qualified professionals who write books for the general public. These authors typically have advanced degrees, do original research, and publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals.

Many data-driven authors are also academics. This does not mean that their books are dull, abstract, or jargon-driven. In fact, their books for general audiences are often filled with clear and practical suggestions.

For starters, look for books by these authors:

Also consider these sources:

Caveat: Science has limits

I’m always pleased to find self-help books that are based on scientific research. Yet this is complicated. Research-based does not always translate to useful.

For one thing, research is complicated. It takes time, money, and expertise in research methods that few people have. If we wait for research-based solutions to all the problems we have, we’ll be waiting a long time.

Also, science doesn’t prove anything. It simply fails to disprove hypotheses. Scientific findings are always open to revision based on new data and research methods. When authors claim that their methods are scientifically proven, you can be sure of two things: It’s not science, and it’s not proven.

Sometimes research-based means that authors don’t actually do research but simply quote published studies that seem to support their ideas. But cognitive biases can easily surface here, including cherry-picking studies that confirm prior beliefs and ignoring studies contradict them. Besides, many authors don’t have the expertise to understand and apply scientific research.

In addition, not all studies are created equal. Some are poorly designed and based on small sample sizes. For more about this, see psychologist Stephanie A. Sarkis on what makes a good research study.

Finally, even well-designed research conducted by experts can lead to mixed results. This is a point well-made by BJ Fogg, Stanford University psychologist and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.

Writing about his research and references for that book, BJ reminds us that context matters: “Scientific lab experiments about human behavior do not give us clear guidance about how things actually work in the real world.”

Even though BJ collected over a half-million data points about habit change, he supplemented this information by personally coaching people to make their desired behavior changes. This unique combination of quantitative and qualitative research led to models and methods that he recommends with confidence.

A reasonable standard

Given all the challenges in crap-detecting self-help books, do we simply quit consuming them? That approach is radical and impractical.

There’s no such thing as a perfect self-help book. They range on a continuum running from scammy to trustworthy. I simply aim to hit the latter side of the continuum as often as possible.

In particular, I look for work that is original and tested, remembering that there are many ways to test content.

For example, consider Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by David Allen. Even though David did not base it directly on scientific research, I admire this book because:

  • David personally coached hundreds of executives in real-world settings to apply specific techniques in the Getting Things Done (GTD) method.
  • He revised the method based on the results he observed over two decades of coaching.
  • In the appendix to his book, David summarizes scientific studies that lend indirect support for GTD.
  • GTD offers clear instructions, describing concrete behaviors that you can actually do.
  • Many people report specific and positive results from doing GTD, as some quick online research will reveal.

This all adds up to compelling anecdotal evidence — a reasonable standard for us to apply.

Crap-detecting self-help books is a nuanced affair. Easy answers about how to solve problems and transcend suffering will forever elude us. Our challenge is to be open-minded and skeptical at the same time — the work of a lifetime.