Thinking Critically About Self-Help Books—The “PP” Test

Self-help books consist largely of two things: points and proof.

Points are the major ideas—the “takeways,” the main assertions that an author makes about a topic.

Proof is evidence—everything offered to support the points. This boils down to three main things:

  • Facts
  • Quotes
  • Anecdotes

Following is an example—a paragraph from one of my favorite books, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James:

In fact, one might almost as well interpret religion as a perversion of the respiratory function. The Bible is full of the language of respiratory oppression: “Hide not thine ear at my breathing; my groaning is not hid from thee; my heart panteth, my strength faileth me; my bones are hot with my roaring all the night long; as the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so my soul panteth after thee, O my God:” God’s Breath in Man is the title of the chief work of our best known American mystic (Thomas Lake Harris), and in certain non-Christian countries the foundation of all religious discipline consists in regulation of the inspiration and expiration.

James starts out with a bold assertion: Religion could be just a change in breathing. That’s the point of this paragraph, stated right at the top. What follows is some compelling proof:

  • A series of quotes from the Bible
  • A fact (“in certain non-Christian countries the foundation of all religious discipline consists in regulation of the inspiration and expiration.”)

James continues with an anecdote about Thomas Lake Harris (not included here).

In short, James passes the “PP” test: The point is clear. The proof is credible.

You can use the same test with any self-help book.

Note: If an author relies too much on anecdotes and too little on facts (such as verifiable statistics and peer-reviewed research), then you might have ample reason to toss the book aside.

Image by critical thinking asylum, Flickr Creative Commons