Episode 64: A Scientist Goes Looking for a Self Help Book….

Self Help books: why are there so many out there? How do you choose? Can they cure depression? Help you lose weight? Stop smoking? Can they replace psychotherapy? Find out how to weed out the best self-help book from all the others. Here’s a list of the top 14 things that really bother psychologists or any scientists about self-help books.
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Self Help Books – When NOT to Trust Them

  1. Make Outlandish claims with no science to back them up (ex: can cure illnesses and lose weight and stop smoking, etc.). Remember that “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”.
  2. Depend on anecdotes and testimonials. Problems with this:
    • Self-serving bias: people take personal credit when things go well in their lives
    • Hindsight Bias: success is judged by looking backward: even psychotherapy can’t be confidently judged as having been helpful in this way (feeling better could be the result of maturation or simply cognitive dissonance)
    • Fundamental attribution error: we think other people are successful because of their internal traits
    • An article was recently published in Scientific American which sheds some light on why anecdotes and testimontials are so convincing. The article is called How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results and was written by well-known skeptic Michael Shermer. Here’s a quote:
      …we have evolved brains that pay attention to anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. So it is that any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.

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  3. Claim that "everything happens for a reason": or "nothing happens by chance". Problem: confirmation bias and hindsight bias – we look for information that confirms our beliefs.
  4. Propose solutions to human problems that are too simplistic: “Happiness is a choice”, or (from the movie “The Natural”): “Losing is a disease” or, “Thoughts are habits – you just have to change your habit.”
  5. Make unfalsifiable claims: “you succeed or you fail because of your thoughts” (prob: “you weren’t thinking positively enough”), “I create my reality”, “I create everything in my life.”
  6. Use no references or citations: there has been a lot of research on what makes people happy. Why wouldn’t a self help book discuss some of these findings? Also, some books don’t give credit to the founders and developers of the concepts that are discussed in these books: Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, or Martin Seligman.
  7. Reference something that is not measurable: ex: law of attraction, law of abundance, law of prosperity, or refer to some “force”.
  8. Make statements that can result in blaming the victim. Ex: “That person failed because he/she didn’t think positively enough.”
  9. Make references to authority figures – the Buddha, Christ, shamans, ancient priests, Hopi Indians, etc., and claim that they would all agree with you. It’s not that such people didn’t understand some trughts about life, but is the author hiding behind these people – hoping that no one would attack them because that would mean attacking these famous people. Also, just because someone famous said it doesn’t make it true.
  10. Give out ordinary advice wrapped around a lot of flowery language. Examples: “work hard”, “set high goals”, “learn from your mistakes”, “give customers more than they expect”, etc. – you don’t need to refer to a “law” or some “force” for this advice to work. It’s just plain good advice. Scientists prefer parsimony – the simplest explanation for events.
  11. Have a “slick salesman” appearance: frequent requests for money or subscription to other services.
  12. Mis-represent psychology: “It’s a fundamental law in psychology that you get more of whatever you focus on.” There is no such law.
  13. Overemphasize the role of your thoughts. Your thoughts may not be the cause of your sad feelings. You may need to look inside and examine some emotional trauma, crisis or poor parenting. Or, if you can change some undesirable behavior your thoughts may change as a result. Or, your negative thoughts may be the result of a biochemical imbalance.
  14. Claim that positive thinking can address serious mental illnesses like chronic depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders or PTSD.


Conclusion

  • Why do we like self-help books? They give us a sense of control over our lives. There’s a lot of randomness in life. Bad things happen to good people. That can be a scary thought.
  • It’s uplifting, it’s comforting to listen and to read these books.
  • Humans are pattern seekers – we see patterns even when they don’t exist.
  • We like to feel that life has meaning.
  • Our biases (self-serving, hindsight, fundamental attribution error, etc.) lead us astray.
  • Human behavior is multi-determined and complex
  • Critical thinking is hard. There is value in being a critical thinker; in thinking like a scientist. Some self help books promote “mushy thinking” which can make you gullible. You’re less gullible when you think critically.

Recommendations

  • Apply the ideas above and do your own evaluation. Lots of self-help books so have good ideas.
  • Look for a book that has citations in the back or which discusses the research. You really can study happiness and a lot of research has been done on what helps to make people feel good about themselves. There is plenty of research to cite.
  • Understand the limitations of self help books. They probably are not going to help with serious psychological illnesses.

Correction

My colleague professor Blaine Peden pointed out to me that there actually are more than laws in psychology than the two I mention in the episode. Some additional ones include:

  • The Gestalt Laws of Perception (similarity, pragnanz, etc.): as Dr. Peden points out: “At best these are qualitative, and there status as laws is up for debate (but they are listed as such in many textbooks–both introductory and for perception courses)”. I can’t believe I forgot about these Gestalt laws. You can learn more about them in a popular video episode of The Psych Files called Lemon Slices and a New Face on Mars! Gestalt Principles at Work
  • Emmert’s Law: a quantitative relationship regarding the size of an after image and its distance to a surface. Here’s a link to another description from wikipedia.
  • Matching Law: Dr. Peden: Richard Herrnstein published the quantitative statement and it is supported by a large operant literature. More on this law in wikipedia.


Comments

  1. says

    Interesting episode, as usual. I have a few comments.

    First of, I think that interviewing Steve Salerno, the author of “Sham: How the Self-help Movement Made America Helpless”, would be a terrific follow-up to this episode (if you can manage to contact him of course).

    Second, you misrepresented the concept of synchronicity. Well, you explained it as it is sometimes presented in the New Age mouvement, but it’s nonetheless incorrect (don’t believe what new agers are writting, ever LOL). Jung doesn’t claim that randomness doesn’t exist. He claims that sometimes, in some occasion, non causal phenomena can happen (he’s thinking of paranormal phenomena, astrology and numerology). You should read is article “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle”.

    I’m also very critical of this concept, especially because it’s deeply rooted in Jung personal conviction in the existence of paranormal phenomena. He uses Rhine’s expermiments to try to give an empirical ground to his hypothesis, even if today parapsychologists don’t seem to agree with his interpretation (In “An introduction to parapsychology” Harvey J. Irwin and Caroline A Watt say that Psi implies a alleged anomalous transfert of information while Jung’s synchronicity does not)…

    Well, I don’t advice you to go into the parapsychological debate anyway, but the way you presented the concept of synchronicity was inacurate.

    Keep up the good work,

  2. says

    Jean-Michel,

    I’ll definitely take a look at the “Sham” book. Sounds interesting.

    You have a point about the concept of synchronicity. Jung’s idea has some subtleties and his original idea for synchonicity may have been misinterpreted over the years. As it happens, the New York Center for Jungian Studies is holding a conference here in my town (oh my gosh – synchronicity?) and I spoke with the director of the center briefly about this issue. He agreed to be interviewed and to talk to me about Jung. So stay tuned – I’ll definitely follow up on this in a future episode.

    NOTE: for now what I’ll do is delete the reference to the word “synchronicity” from the episode and the show notes and replace it with the essence of the troublesome idea: the belief that “everything happens for a reason” (number 3 in the list above).

    Thanks for the helpful comment!

    Michael

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