Self Help? Mibbes no the best idea…

by endlesspsych

Before I start I’ll make a small confession, Self help books/tapes etc are pretty much anathema to me – whether dressed up as personal growth, get rich schemes or guides to male and female social interaction. I despise them. The often trite blend of glib non-sequitur and ‘common sense’ advice posing as some sort of pseudo-scientific golden path to a better life raises my hackles more then many, arguably more sinister and nefarious (the links are of course entirely coincidental and merely link to blogs by others who you may find interesting…), branches of pseudoscience.


Well it’s possibly because these sorts of books always seem to gravitate towards the  “psychology” section of bookshops and seem instrumental in popularising garish (and meaningless) pop. psych. phrases such as “closure”, “codependent” and their insidious ilk. It could be that they allow people to believe themselves to be experts on the human condition, human behaviour and the human mind based on the authority of correspondence course PhD authors, experiential savants and purveyors of success… An authority it’s fair to say I think is built upon the shaky foundations of self interest and propped up with a dubious scaffold of confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and positive feedback loops.

Not to say that I don’t think that human beings aren’t in general experts in human behaviour and human thought, I do, I just think self help jargon only serves to obfuscate our natural talents in this regard. With it’s over theorising and platitude based systems of solution.

I’m a firm believer that self help is at worst a con and at best a sticking plaster to mask real, although probably not serious, insecurities and perceived character faults mostly harmless but I always believed it could potentially do a lot of harm. So it was with some glee that I came across this article from the BBC. Essentially it highlights one of the odd foibles of the human mind concerned mainly with an odd wee thing called attribution theory a theory that deals with, in simple terms, how people with low and high levels of self esteem view the world. In general people with high self esteems attribute successes to themselves (internal factors) and failures to other external factors, people with low self esteem show the reverse of this trend. As such you might reasonably hold that raising someones self esteem would be a good step towards positive personal development. You might also hold that complimenting the person or getting them to think better of themselves, a tenet of self help, if not since  it’s inception at least since Samuel Smiles endeavours. Well…

… The research quoted in the article suggests that people with low self esteem (the de facto market for self help books and their ilk) who completed a mantra about being “a loveable person” felt worse then those with high self esteem. Casting doubt on the use of such techniques in self help. One of the reasons this may be the case is because people who already attribute success to external factors and failures to internal ones may, when faced with the information “I am a lovable person” enter into a bit of cognitive dissonance. Really, in simplified terms just telling themselves “they aren’t really… it’s just for the experiment/because the tapes say so etc”. Thus rather then instigating any real change, personal development or anything approaching self help all that is achieved is some form of attributional status quo.

Of course this doesn’t discredit or discount all self help (it’s even worth making the point that one study does not a summer make), but what’s worth remembering is that technically self help programs and advice can be considered complex interventions; As such they should be subject to the same processes and procedures used in designing and evaluating such things. In much the same way that all pseudo-scientific nonsense should be subject to the challenge and rigour of the scientific method.

This article is, also in part, influenced by a lively discussion from the Edinburgh sceptics group about the next sceptics in the pub speaker Richard Wisemans new book “59 Seconds“. Which is described, by Derren Brown no less, as

“‘A triumph of scientifically proved advice over misleading myths of self-help. Challenging, uplifting and long overdue'”

It would be unfair, and potentially libelous!, to reproduce some of the comments in the discussion here and perhaps rather silly given that no-one at said meeting had been able to yet read the book.  However the general point of the discussion I will mention, to maybe encourage a little debate…

Essentially how do you think science communication should be carried out and what is the most effective way it is currently carried out?

Is taking the enemy on, on their own territory (so to speak) the way to go  (for instance with Prof. Wisemans latest book, or indeed Derren Browns stage shows) or does it ultimatly serve to make the rest of the field seem respectable?