Episode 64: Self Help Book – How To Tell if It’s Any Good

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.

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.

  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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


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.

Episode 57: Expectancy Theory, Goal Setting and Getting in Shape

Expectancy Theory and Losing WeightConfused about expectancy theory? I’ll clear things up in this episode. It can be a little complicated but I’ll use the familiar example of losing weight to nail this idea down. I’ll also talk about goal setting. What’s the psychology behind getting in shape? In this episode of The Psych Files podcast I examine two established theories of human motivation – goal setting and expectancy theory. If you’ve tried the Atkins diet, the south beach diet some other low carb diet plan or even (yikes!) a lemonade diet, then it’s time to try something different – get into your head just a little bit and see what’s going on in there. Join me for a different perspective on weight loss, exercise and fitness.

Click on the image below to see a larger version of the Expectancy Theory of Motivation:

The Expectancy Theory model of motivation

Resources on Motivation and Getting in Shape

  • I highly recommend the Fitness Rocks podcast which is hosted by Dr. Monte Ladner. Excellent podcast. I’m a subscriber.
  • The article that appeared in UCLA’s Daily Bruin entitled, "Food Restriction Not Effective Long-Term Weight-Loss Solution" is no longer available online, but this is the one that mentions how some students are trying a lemonade diet to lose weight, not understanding that severe calorie restriction results in the body going into "starvation mode " and actually results in less weight loss. Here’s a quote from that article:
    Not eating enough food may become a problem because of metabolism decrease. When consuming fewer calories, the body thinks it is in starvation mode, so it wants to hold on to whatever calories it can and in fact will store them even more efficiently, said Dana Ellis, a cardiac dietitian at the UCLA Medical Center. As a result of food deprivation, the body starts to store every calorie as fat, according to an article by Sheri Barke, a dietitian at the UCLA Arthur Ashe Health and Wellness Center.

Expectancy Theory Explained

Check out below the voicethread I created to explain exactly how expectancy theory works using weight loss as an example. Click on the image below to listen and watch (use your mouse to move around) or go to this image on expectancy theory at the Voicethread website. Sign up and you can comment on this image as well!

Episode 50: Psychological Study Ripped Straight from….the Bible?

How many scientific studies find their inspiration from a parable in the bible? Well, this one does and for my 50th episode I’ll go over a very interesting study based on the Good Samaritan parable. We’ll take another look at the topic of bystander intervention by asking the question: are people more likely to help someone if they are thinking “pious” thoughts at the time?

After reviewing the study I’ll take a look at a couple articles that cite the good Samaritan parable and ask the question: what does the results of this study imply about the value of character education, virtues programs, codes of ethics, citizenship and ethical behavior in general?

The Good Samaritan Parable (Luke 10: 27-37)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus…”And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by the other side. but a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? He said, The one who showed him mercy” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Resources on Helping Behavior

  • Darley, J. M. & Batson, C. D. (1973) From Jerusalem to Jericho: a study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100 – 119.
  • Samuels, S.M. and Casebeer, W.D. (2005). A social psychological view of morality: why knowledge of situational influences on behaviour can improve character development practices. Journal of Moral Education, 34, 73-87.
  • Kotre, J. (1992). Experiments as Parables. American Psychologist, 672-673.

Episodes on Bystander Intervention and other Good Stories

Other Experiments as Parables

  • Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance.
    Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210
  • Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,
    67, 371-378.
  • Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
  • Watson, J.B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

Episode 36: Kitty Genovese: What Really Happened?

Kitty GenoveseImage via Wikipedia

Kitty Genovese: what you know about what happened to her is wrong.

Kitty Genovese was repeatedly attacked while others watched and did nothing – right?


While the story lead to a long and successful line of research in the area of bystander intervention and diffusion of responsibility, the facts of the story are incorrect.

What are the facts behind the Kitty Genovese case and if groups are so unlikely to help, how do you explain how people came together to help at 911? Let’s take another look at the legacy of this famous story in this episode.

Resources For This Podcast

Episode 35: The Psychology of Extreme Sports

Time for a little fun. I know you’ve asked yourself this question: why do people engage in those dangerous extreme sports like hang gliding, bungee jumping and rock climbing? Would you believe it might have something to do with neurotransmitters and something called Monoamine Oxidase? In this video episode we learn about Sensation Seekers. Along the way I discuss how SSRI‘s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) function in the synapse. Come along for the ride.

Resources On Extreme Sports

Media Resources for this Episode