The self-help industry is booming, but its advice is rarely based on solid evidence

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Nabila Atiqah
Nabila Atiqah hates crowds and anything smelly. In her spare time, she can be seen sipping tea, catching up on pop culture and jazzing to the latest tunes. She is currently wrapping up her psychology degree in Singapore Management University.

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On 8th October 2009, a “personal transformation” retreat by popular self-help guru James Arthur Ray turned into a tragedy, with the deaths of three people. Kirby Brown, a 38-year old struggling business owner, was one of the victims. She felt stuck in life as she needed to support her retired parents and deal with her father’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Tight on finances, she was in search of some wealth.

As a fan of Oprah Winfrey, Kirby watched episodes where Oprah advocated for Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling book and film, The Secret. James Arthur, the self-help guru, was featured in the book, preaching about the law of attraction. He claimed that his theories of “harmonic wealth” were supported by science.

Sold by his ideologies and methods, Kirby began following Arthur’s workshops and seminars, until the ‘Spiritual Warrior’ self-help retreat in Arizona that October. The seminar’s finale was a sweat lodge ceremony. Prior to the ceremony, participants had gone days without food and water as part of meditation. Ushering the participants into a makeshift dome, he reassured the participants that they were going to feel like dying but they are not going to die, and that they would be okay.

Within two hours of the ceremony, Kirby was not part of the lucky few who managed to escape. She, and two other people, had died of heatstroke.

James Arthur was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to six years in prison. He ended up only serving 20 months. After being released from prison, he attempted to relaunch his self-help business.

While this is an extreme case of a self-help practice gone wrong, the cult following for self-help books and content has not faltered, growing exponentially into a billion-dollar industry today. With a sharp rise in Millennials struggling with mental health in 2020, many are turning to self-help books and bibliotherapy. 94% of Millennials are making commitments to improve themselves, and they are also willing to spend over $300 on self-improvement.

“When it’s hard to vocalise your problems, more people are likely to seek answers in books. The author doesn’t know you so there is no judgement,” Tess, a 22-year old university student, told me.

Psychology researcher of happiness and well-being, William Tov shared a similar explanation:

Youths may find it difficult to speak to someone about their problems. They could seek self-help books to retain some sense of control as they can remain anonymous and evaluate for themselves whether to follow a piece of advice. There also could be stigma from seeking therapy services, or for cost reasons as these books are significantly cheaper and less time-consuming.

Tapping into the growing anxieties of this generation, self-help are a highly profitable business, and they dominate the shelves of the bestsellers – despite the industry being highly unregulated, filled with outdated advice, and even contradicting actual scientific research.

Love languages

Chrissy, 28, is a financial advisor who recently got engaged, but last year she was on the verge of breaking up. She was struggling to understand her partner of six years and wanted to find a way to work on it. This led her to seek help from a best-selling relationship book. She explained:

I like the concept of love languages from Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. It gave me a lot of insight on what I was doing wrong in my relationships such as how I communicate with people.

Often described as the “marriage expert”, Gary Chapman is best known for The Five Love Languages. Since its republishing in 2015, it reigned the No.1 Bestseller in the Love & Romance category on Amazon with over 20 million copies sold. Readers looking to improve their relationships would almost certainly have stumbled upon this book. 

Chapman’s theory of love languages categorises people into the five types: words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, quality time, and gift-giving. He claims that each person has a primary love language that indicates how they would prefer to express and receive love. As Chrissy told me:

My love language is acts of service and I always gave love the way I felt was right to me. But my partner prefers physical touch and I realised I haven’t been giving him enough physical touch. It definitely helped a lot in strengthening our relationship.

It’s not just Chrissy – this ideology has seeped into the modern collective thinking, and can be found all across social media. Love languages are often used as a form of personal identification, or to give the context of the relationship dynamic on Reddit’s r/relationship_advice forum, where over 5.8 million users exchange relationship advice.

Contrary to Chrissy’s positive experience, the Reddit forum is filled with many negative stories. In one post, a Redditor considered breaking up with her partner due to the mismatch in love languages, saying, “I feel like this is making me doubt our relationship because I’m not being loved the way I want to”. Another Redditor read about love languages, and felt disappointed when her partner didn’t fulfil them. “I felt restless that he could not spend time with me. We’re both people who value quality time but he’s too busy with work all the time,” said Redditor droolinpoodle.

“I think there is an intuitive appeal about love languages because it is easy to understand and it resonates with everyone’s experiences,” said Kenneth Tan, assistant professor of psychology with a research focus on close relationships.

However, there is very little empirical evidence in psychological research to support the validity of love languages. Research by Bunt and Hazelwood (2017) found that love language alignment does not affect relationship satisfaction.

A stack of 8 books with a pair of glasses on top.

“What is happening is not about the love languages per se, it is more the extent to which partners are responsive (or not responsive) that is driving the underlying conflict between couples, resulting in lower relationship satisfaction,” said Kenneth. “Such advice might cause more harm than good as they might delay professional support such as marital counselling if they need it.”

Research by Dunbar and Abra (2006) showed that less than 20% of self-help books based their findings on empirical research. The majority of the self-help books in the study relied on anecdotal advice that often made inaccurate claims and correlations. With unvalidated scientific support common in self-help books, it’s little surprise to see the inclusion of pseudoscientific themes such as modern interpretations of the law of attraction.

Good vibes

As a strong believer of ‘good vibes’, Jayden, 25, always had a smile on his face. However, he was not always like that. He told me:

I was supposed to work together with a long-time friend for a school camp, but we were arguing every other day and in a very destructive manner. This conflict brought a lot of negativity and it was affecting me. I became more irritable and grumpy that ultimately affected my camp team.

As an avid user of Instagram, he came across a self-help book by social media mogul Vex King’s Good Vibes, Good Life. Since then, he had adopted a ‘good vibes’ mentality that was promoted in the book:

The book taught me how we all have these vibrations that we emit out into the world. It’s like when you meet someone and you have the same ‘vibe’ or whether you are at the same wavelength.

This concept of spreading ‘good vibes’ is simply a modern reinterpretation of the law of attraction. The law of attraction relies on the existence of positive and negative energy, and how the universe manifests positive or negative experiences based on that energy. Jayden explained:

I try to think positive as much as I can, and I do feel that my day gets better whenever I’m in a good mood. But once I start feeling negative, everything just goes down the hill. Some people bring negative energy to the table and wonder why no one likes them. Having good ‘vibes’ helped me gain friends who radiate the same ‘vibe’ and I have better and healthier friendships because of that.

The law of attraction has no scientific basis, despite many supporters referring to scientific theories to argue their point.

“It’s very metaphysical. Believing that things would happen without an explanation of how it happened? Now, that is like magic!” said psychologist William Tov.

Psychological research has shown that focusing solely on the positives can also make you less rational and lead to poor achievement, as relying on your fantasies means you may not take steps to achieve your desired future. But, as Tov told me:  

However, there is some part of it that is true – such as being optimistic. Optimism does have its benefits. Studies have shown those who are optimistic about achieving their goal and plan for it, will more likely achieve their goal than those who are pessimistic. So whether if the advice is good or bad is dependent on your situation.

Self-help for insomnia

The onus is often on the readers to decide whether the advice in self-help books is useful to them by trying it out for themselves. Tess is a passionate reader and even writes book reviews on her blog. Her reading journey started with personal finance and investing books in her first year of university before venturing to self-help for more personal issues. She told me:

For a period of time, I couldn’t sleep very well so I was trying to find a way to improve my sleep.

As she felt that this was not an easy fix, she went to research for a self-help book that could provide tips for better sleep. That was when she picked up Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep?, which claims to be based on scientific research. She explained:

I think the book is rather controversial. Some people don’t believe his methods are scientifically proven but it does work for me. I only knew about the bad reviews after I read the book but I feel that the tips were still valuable to me.

Tess had incorporated many of the tips from the book such as using black-out curtains, taking a hot bath before bedtime, and switching to yellow lights in her room. She believes these tips have helped her to get better sleep in recent months.

The benefits Tess experienced may have just been a placebo effect that is common in sleep research. Research by Perlis et al. (2005) suggests that expecting to get improved sleep reduces anxiety about falling asleep. This may lead to a lesser time needed to fall asleep and the overall perception of better sleep. Additionally, if one has a continued lack of sleep, it is natural to finally have a good night’s sleep. When this natural sleep coincides with the actions taken from self-help books, this can serve to reinforce the lowered anxiety around sleeping, and the improved sleep continues.

Personal development

Simply reading self-help books can instil a sense of false hope or achievement. These books often offer simplistic steps, such as a mindset shift that makes readers feel like they are already gaining from the book, before they’ve even put the advice to the test. I spoke to Arief, a 25-year old university student who sought out self-help books for his personal development. He told me:

There was no changing point. I just felt like I needed to gain more knowledge to make better decisions in life. If I am not careful, I will just be like a sheep in the society, moving wherever the shepherds decide to move us.

He wanted to learn from experts and those who had achieved success on how they lead their lives. From watching self-help content on YouTube, he was inspired to start reading best-selling self-help books such as Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter’s Rich Dad Poor Dad and James Clear’s Atomic Habits. He explained:

While it does not have an immediate drastic improvement, it allows me to get various perspectives. I could relook at my existing behaviours like my current habits and create a mental framework for future challenges.

While Arief enjoys reading these success stories and is hopeful to apply them to his life, he admits that self-help books can be too idealistic. “I feel like I still have a lot more to match up to these authors,” he said.

Stories of successful people can make you feel worse. These books show you what you are lacking, including areas you did not even think needs an upgrade.

“Readers may engage in upward social comparison, in which they compare themselves with the authors. This may, in turn, lower their self-esteem,” said Kenneth Tan on the harm that self-help books may have on readers.

False impressions and survivor bias

What the readers see is only what the author chooses to show. Readers often only hear from exceptional performers, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In reality, they only make up a small portion of the population, while the vast majority of us will be much closer to the average performers. This is known as the survivor bias, a bias that overlooks those with similar characteristics who do not get the limelight, because they failed.

A microphone in a spotlight

As everyone has different circumstances, it is difficult to generalise solutions. When people try to follow the advice of the self-help industry, but do not achieve the results promised, it can lead to self-blame, and a worsening of their mental health. Research also showed that those who failed to achieve extrinsic goals such as wealth may be at further high risk of anxiety and depression. This may make readers feel like they have to read and learn even more from self-help books, spiralling in this wheel of hopeless self-improvement.

Promising love, stronger friendships and even to “spark joy” via decluttering, the range for self-improvement is endless. Without a pertinent goal, prolonged stress from the constant need to improve yourself can produce strong negative motions, and impair critical for reasoning and thinking. This means that one is less likely to think rationally in the process of self-improvement, following what others claim to be good for them.

Although the self-help industry generally poses minimal risk for the readers at face value, readers should be more aware of underlying consequences. Like when Millennials seek solace in self-help books for their worries such as unaligned workplace expectations, the effects of reading books such as Tim Ferris’ The 4-Day Work Week can instead increase dissatisfaction when life does not match up to the ideal.

It’s not the only backlash we need to be aware of. The increased scrutiny in recent years on the self-help industry has led to the rise of a new subset of self-help books. The anti-self-help self-help books tell you to accept mediocrity and life is meaningless without the inevitable suffering. Such books aim to provide a more objective and realistic view of life.

As psychology researcher William Tov explained:

“The complexity of scientific research gets minimised in self-help books as people are not trained to interpret statistics and empirical research. People think they are getting really good advice from research, but not everything works for the same person.

“Change will take time and work but people are often seeking for a clear and easy solution through self-help books. So be aware of your biases like the confirmation bias. We tend to believe in any claims that are consistent with our general beliefs and, the trick is, we usually don’t question that. We don’t ask for further evidence.

“So when authors make a strong recommendation or definite advice, critical thinking will help fight these kinds of biases. Ask yourself, ‘How does this person know?’ and fact-check with scientific sources wherever possible.”

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