A sceptic’s guide to self-help

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where’s the self-help section?” She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. George Carlin

There are no greater liars in the world than quacks – except for their patients. Benjamin  Franklin

The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one. Christopher Buckley, an American political satirist and the author of novels including God Is My Broker

Self-help is an enterprise wherein people holding the thinnest of credentials diagnose in basically normal people symptoms of inflated or invented maladies, so that they may then implement remedies that have never been shown to work. Steve Salerno, a journalist who uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement

 If you need to pay for someone’s help, why is it called “self-help”? Sceptic, Michael Shermer

The other day I heard one of those excellent RSA podcasts. This particular one featured Barbara Ehrenreich, who has recently written a book attacking positive thinking and the world of self-help books life coaches and motivational speakers.  Ehrenreich came into contact with all this after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And she was horrified by what she saw. The pink ribbon culture repelled her but there was more to it than that. What she didn’t like was the perception of cancer. On the one hand it was being described as a positive life experience. In her article Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch  Ehrenreich quotes Cindy Cherry, analysing her experience of cancer:

If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely, I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not. Money doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve met the most phenomenal people in my life through this. Your friends and family are what matter now.

On the other hand it encourages victim blaming by suggesting that people’s misfortune is the result of a failure to think positively. Not only do people have cancer, but it is somehow their fault if they don’t have right attitude.

In a previous post, Welcome to the Psychosphere I analysed the psychologisation of society but now I want to look at the self-help movement. In her book Ehrenreich traces the movement back to the 19th century and sees it as a positive thing a counterweight to all that Calvinist pessimism. In fact these ideas go back to the ancient Greeks. But it was Samuel Smiles who popularised the concept and in 1859 he wrote the first self-consciously personal-development self-help book entitled funnily enough Self-Help. Then we got all that New Age stuff from the hippies at the time of the Vietnam war. It would be nice to think that this kind of nonsense would tend to fade away in our scientific age but there seems to be little evidence of this. We seem to have a fixed quota of nonsense – when one superstitious belief fades away, another one comes in to take its place.

Let me be clear I am not against people being ambitious. What does irk me is the unscientific nature of this movement, and the absolute contempt they have for scientific proof. An argument you often hear is that if they help one person, then they are doing some good. The problem with that assertion is that helping some people is not enough.. Of course they have helped some people. The law of large numbers means that if enough people are trying enough things then some are bound to appear to work. Many people’s lives improve naturally.

They also have the perfect excuse if the treatment doesn’t work. The person lacks the right attitude. Alcoholics Anonymous say that they 75% of those who embrace change are cured of their alcoholism. To be fair to AA,  they are not a money-making organisation, which is not true of many others in this field.

Another fallacy comes from books such as The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. These people were successful but what we don’t see is those people who had exactly the same traits but ended up failing.

I am not against positive thinking. I would admit I can be a bit of a pessimist. You can see that in my political philosophy, which states that utopia is not an option. I do admire that American entrepreneurial spirit. People who have nothing and by coming up with some idea are able to make their fortune. Maybe sometimes you need to be a bit delusional. If you were perfectly rational, you just wouldn’t take all those risks. When people offer practical advice, I’m all in favour. But the power of the mind is not unlimited. The only recipe for success is huge doses of opportunism, hard work and luck. Most things fail. This 12-billion-dollar industry is taking too many people for a ride. But it is up to us to see through these charlatans.

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