The Perils of Superficial Advice

Daniel Gulati’s excellent post, Beware the Everyday Expert, brought to mind a possible example.

Recently I commented on a post by Michael Hyatt, How to Break Bad Habits. The post leads with a video—a comedy sketch in which Bob Newhart plays a psychotherapist. He sees a client with behaviors fueled by anxiety. In response, Newhart gives her two words of advice: “STOP IT.”

I’d like to share my comment on this post with you and get your perspective. (Read Michael’s post first to get the context.) Here’s what I wrote:

I have long been a fan of Bob Newhart and I am a faithful reader of this blog. I am deeply disappointed in this post. While it applies to most of us, and to behaviors that are largely voluntary, it will not help people who are struggling with real mental health issues.

I have several friends who are recovering alcoholics. They tell me that what allowed them to continue drinking as long as they did was the belief that they could stop drinking any time they wanted, and that they didn’t need any help.

I also know someone with disabling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. People tell him to just stop his compulsive behaviors.

There are effective treatments for OCD, but they take time. It’s more complicated than just “stop it.” To say this to a person with OCD will simply further their suffering. And believe me, they are already suffering greatly.

I’ve read The Power of Habit. It’s a good book. But the process of transformation is different. Transformation and isolated habit changing are two different things. And, transformation can’t be reduced to a numbered list.

In addition, trying to reduce compulsive behaviors to a need for variety or certainty fails to do justice to the complexity of these conditions. Addictions alter the chemistry of the brain and wreak havoc with the reward system. The solution involves research-backed treatment that’s delivered over time, on many levels. Anecdotes and a comedy video aren’t going to cut it.

But this is hard. People like easy answers. They like to give advice. They like to feel superior. Nuanced answers and high-level thinking don’t always make for a punchy blog post.

Before judging someone who is dwelling in the depths of despair and telling this person to “just stop it,” I urge people to remember something that you have written elsewhere: Walk a mile in their shoes.

Did I over-react? Let me know what you think.

2 thoughts on “The Perils of Superficial Advice”

  1. No, Doug, you didn’t overreact at all. When I read the post, I felt rather angry. He tries to make light of it and, in the comments to your post, he and others say, “This isn’t about anything as severe as mental illness.” And yet, in his examples, he uses smoking and compulsive gambling, both of which are addictions and therefore, technically, mental disorders.
    If he truly wanted to give a four-step “just replace the behavior” example, he should have used something like biting your fingernails or being late all the time.
    I blog, too, and I understand about wanting “punch” in your posts, but I view this one as dismissive and possibly harmful to people who, as you point out, are trying to transform rather than just change a bad habit.


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