What to Look For in a Self-Help Book (Part Two)

In part one of this post, I suggest ways to evaluate self-help books. Look for:

  • Author credibility
  • Good instructions
  • Therapeutic tone
  • Tested ideas

That last item is important.

When our goal is behavior change, the ideal is to find a book that is grounded in solid theory and tested by scientific research. This is tricky, however.

Two problems

First, many self-help books are based only on a handful of anecdotes or purely personal experiences. That kind of evidence doesn’t count as scientific research. (For more about this, see The Plural of “Anecdote” is not  “Data” and Who is an Expert, Anyway?)

Second, all research is not created equal. The best research is published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s based on studies of large numbers of people who are observed under controlled conditions. The results of these studies are also consistent when repeated by a number of researchers over a long period of time.

That kind of research is expensive. It takes a lot of time. And, even the best of these studies might not relate to the specific problem you want to solve, or to the behavior you want to change.

Two possible solutions

Faced with these problems, you still have reasonable solutions.

One is to look for self-help books based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected. Changing one of these factors will affect the others.

For example, you can reduce feelings of anger by changing thoughts associated with that emotion. (Many of these thoughts are variations on the statement, “People should behave the way I want them to at all times.”)

CBT has been around for decades. The theory behind it is highly refined, and a lot of studies support its effectiveness.

In addition, CBT is still in active development. It’s the source of several new, evidence-based therapies. Among them are dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

The second is to run your own tests. This means changing a specific behavior and collecting numeric data on the results. In effect, you become a scientist who studies your own life.

Once you know how to do this, you can take any self-help strategy and see if it actually works for you.

This sounds geeky, but it can be done simply and effectively. For more details, do a little reading about personal informatics. Also see The Quantified Self: Self-Knowledge Through Numbers and and Gary Wolf’s article about The Data-Driven Life.

There’s more, but those sources will get you started.

Photo by Bethan, Flickr Creative Commons