Won’t Get Fooled Again—Three Levels of Credibility in Self-Help Books

There are vast differences in the quality of self-help material that you’ll find in print and online. Don’t get fooled. Look for three major distinctions.

1. Books grounded in theory and research

This is the gold standard. Go to this level whenever you can.

For example, books that are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are backed by decades of published studies in peer-reviewed journals. (You can find a list of such books here.) I’d also recommend books that are grounded in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). These and similar evidence-based therapies have been tested in clinical application and formal research.

New Harbinger Publications offers books based on all three kinds of therapy. A look at their catalog will give you an idea of what to trust. (Note: I am not affiliated with New Harbinger in any way.) Of course, there are many other sources of worthwhile books.

Many of these books exemplify another strength. They’re based on a skills-acquisition model. This means that they give clear and concrete instructions—stuff that you can actually go out and do.

2. Books grounded in extensive experience

Let’s face it: Psychological research is time-consuming, expensive, and hard to do. Many authors outside an academic setting simply don’t have the resources for it. And, they can still have messages worth hearing.

In that case, turn to the author’s bio. Look for evidence that he or she has worked with a variety of clients in different settings over a sustained a period of time.

Two examples come to mind. One is the work of David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: A Guide to Stress-Free Productivity and other books. Allen has consulted with hundreds of individuals and organizations over several decades. And, he keeps getting hired. That’s a great sign. Also, his books are all about skills-acquisition. You can test the ideas for yourself.

Second, there’s the vast body of literature based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. (You can find many examples in the catalog of Hazelden Publishing.) Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1935, is still one of the best self-help books around. The author’s voice is singular, authoritative, and compassionate. And, the book’s principles have informed many treatment programs for alcohol and other drug addiction.

3. Books grounded in the author’s ego

We live in the best and worst of times for readers and writers. On the one hand, the barriers to getting published are at a historic low point. This means that many authors with solid content whose work is rejected by acquisitions editors can now self-publish.

Alas, danger is also at hand: Many authors with untested content can now self-publish. Their products can be professionally designed and expertly marketed. And, they may be little more than promotional pieces for people with a planet-sized ego.

You might get halfway in to such a book and realize that the only evidence presented is first-person anecdotes. That’s a red flag. (For more details, see this must-read post by April Hamilton.)

“It seems to me sometimes that the advice industry is made up of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence robots,” notes Naomi Dunford of IttyBiz, a web site for small business owners. “Their advice is flawless, as long as the person they’re speaking to is exactly like them. But their code seems to break down completely when confronted with a savage heathen like me or you.”

Amen. Dunford expresses the “random sample of one” problem that I posted about here. This error occurs when authors of self-help books base their suggestions on their own personal experience. Period.

Please don’t feel obligated to finish such books. In fact, you might want to help us all by gently consigning them to the recycling heap.

What criteria do you use to evaluate self-help books?  


  1. Doug, I use the first two for sure to evaluate self-help books. I also look to see if the author has any new ideas or even new takes on old ideas. I hate to read the same old thing in self-help books.


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