1 The Problem With Self-Help Literature

A popular go-to for many when they have a particular stress affecting them is picking up a self-help book. Often inspirational stories written by people who have overcome some struggle, self-help writers give advice based on their individual experience of what they went through, what worked for them, and what realizations and lessons they learned along the way. These books may be easily accessible and make people feel like they are working on themselves through reading them, but there is a problem with the self-help book trend: There is often little to no research that backs them up (Schamel, 2020). While these captivating and inspirational stories may be more enjoyable and easy to read than scientific research, and the authors may have great intentions, they often are not a good solution, as there is no scientific proof that they will lead to a sustained change. Self-help books involve the digestion of unexamined or unproven ideas, and the reader is encouraged to accept and integrate these unchecked pieces of information into their lives. In short, the available self-help literature is largely not empirically based and is often uninformed by social science. Unfortunately, without following empirical evidence, self-help books are unlikely to help people with making the long-lasting, impactful change they are searching for.

One reason for this is that self-help books tend to address problems at an individual level, and in a vacuum of sorts. In other words, they tend to give blanket-statement advice which ignores or doesn’t account for the reader’s sociocultural or socioeconomic contexts (Schamel, 2020). A stressed single mother working two jobs can’t just “travel more” or “take some time off” to reduce her stress. Or, for a sociocultural example within self-help, Asian-Americans are less likely to be able to take certain pieces of advice which encourage individualist behaviors, because of their collectivist-centered upbringing (Schamel, 2020). Advice which encourages prioritizing oneself or setting boundaries with others may not resonate as well with people from collectivist cultures as it would with individualist cultures. In order for self-help to work, solutions need to take into consideration who the audience is, and what would work best for them in their sociocultural and socioeconomic contexts.

One sure benefit of self-help books, though, is that they are captivating and have the potential power to energize widespread action—certainly more so than primary-source scientific literature. The self-help format is one which is more useful for getting people engaged and energized, and it makes it easy to follow along and apply solutions. If the claims made and advice given were supported by scientific evidence, they could be really impactful. Not only could they energize readers, but also mobilize them—move them towards making a change.

Social scientists could tap into the self-help trend, but the unfortunate reality is that researchers are instead incentivized to publish journal articles, intended for other professionals to read. These articles are found in scientific journals which are inaccessible to the general public, and written for an audience already well-versed in the field. Most authors do not make much effort to publish their research or spread the information in other ways, so that more people can benefit from it. The result is that knowledge about psychology stays trapped within a small bubble—and this bubble floats away from anyone outside the social science realm.