Evaluating Self-Help — Is It Based On Current Research?

ttronslien-9913This morning I’m scanning published samples of the work that I’ve done with clients — many of them self-help books. I’m also asking myself Which of these hold up? Which of these I can still recommend after all these years?

The answer, sadly, is not all of them.

The passage of time allows me to see this body of work with a withering objectivity. Alas, several of these books are simply ego-driven puff pieces — super-sized business cards designed to build an author’s brand rather than impart any useful content.

What went wrong with these projects? Many things. But the biggest problem by far is that these books — like most self-help books — are not scientific. Rather than relying on published research or other rigorous testing, they’re instead based on personal anecdotes and testimonials. And there are many reasons for us to doubt that material, including the following:

Results matter only when they’re repeated

I want to know that someone besides the author has succeeded as a direct result of applying the book’s content. If a self-help author relies on personal examples rather than objective observations of many people, then the book is probably based on chance rather than cause-effect relationships.

Anecdotes often ignore confirmation bias

As human beings we desperately want to believe that our beliefs are correct. This leads us to notice events that confirm those beliefs and ignore those that disconfirm them. (Josh Kaufman has a nice post on this cognitive bias.)

This is one place where the scientific method shines: Good researchers deliberately seek out the data that disconfirms  their hypotheses, which leads to more trustworthy conclusions in the long run.

Stories morph with repetition

I’ve sat through presentation after presentation by clients and heard their anecdotes change over time. Details shift. New characters appear. Outcomes are progressively recast to sound more impressive.

My clients are not evil; they are simply human. Like all of us, they want to be liked — an endearing impulse that can easily trump the truth.

For more on how anecdotes and testimonials can sabotage self-help books, see this brilliant series of posts by April Hamilton:

Also see these from my archives:


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