The Self-Help Industry Helps Itself to Billions of Dollars




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Self-improvement represents a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone. In addition to high revenues, self-help also has a high recidivism rate, with the most likely purchaser of a self-help book being the same person who purchased one already in the last 18 months. This begs the question of how much good these self-help books and seminars are doing for consumers. If they are so effective at solving our problems, why do they usually result in a continuing stream of self-help purchases?

Self-help books are frequently followed by a train of formulaic subsequent manuals for happiness, weight loss, success, money, or spirituality by the very same authors, fueling the 6.1% average annual growth rate projected by Marketdata Enterprise Inc. The New Statesman’s Barbara Gunnell forecasts a secure future for positive psychology, noting that “never has an age been so certain that it deserves not just freedom from distress, but positive well-being” and that “the worried well with a belief in their right to feel good are a lucrative market.” Furthermore, the credentials of self-help authors are uneven, and research has documented the noticeable absence of empirical evidence supporting the advice so copiously pumped out to the masses.

The origins of the self-help genre have been attributed to Victorian phrenologist George Combe’s The Constitution of Man (1828), followed by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Compensation. Dale Carnegie, famous for his books How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living still holds a top-ranking spot on Amazon.com to this day.

In the 1950s and 60s, Abraham Maslow “proclaimed the supremacy of the self-actualizing person, who realizes the fullness of his or her nature – without doing harm to others, or course – and lives as happily as one can on earth,” notes Algis Valiunas. Among the more modern offerings, Tony Robbins has raked in $80 million in a year and John Gray’s New York Times best-seller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus “outsold almost every other book in the known universe except the Bible” claims Valiunas in The New Atlantis. In his particularly eloquent and scathing commentary, “The Science of Self-Help,” Valiunas points out that “this is the scientific fruit of those who consider themselves not only the wisest of our time but evidently the wisest of all time,” with teaching that is “sensible, unexceptional. It is also obvious and insipid. Accept imperfection and pain. Do some jogging. Slow down and count your breaths.”

Credentials of Self-Help Authors and Recurring Themes Among Best-Sellers

Norah Dunbar and Gordon Abra conducted a survey of current self-help literature, with 2 aims: first, to determine whether the people advising the masses had the appropriate credentials to do so, and second, to identify common themes among top selling self-help books.

Using Amazon.com to identify the most popular self-help authors by searching terms including “marriage”, “relationships”, and “communication,” the researchers identified 31 authors. Among them, two were medical doctors and 19 held doctorates, mostly PhDs in psychology, with two in linguistics or education. Seven held a master’s degree in social work, counseling psychology/family therapy, or theology, with one in film studies. Two authors had no formal education, and one had a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics. “All degrees were from accredited institutions except one. Gray’s degree is from the unaccredited and now defunct Columbia Pacific University,” state Dunbar and Abra.

Another component of this query was whether the authors of popular self-help books used research published in academic journals to support their advice. The majority did not, relying solely or primarily on anecdotal evidence: “Few of the popular authors are basing their opinions about communications on empirically-tested research findings. Fewer than 20% had based their findings on a sustained program of research and less than half had published even one article in peer-reviewed journals or books.”

With regard to overarching themes, the researchers identified five. The first was the use of banking or financial metaphors and analogies, such as “love bank”, “account balances”, “relationship bank account,” and other references amounting to debits and credits to relationship satisfaction. Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages (and all the subsequent variations thereof, such as the singles edition, men’s edition, and so on), is quoted: “I am convinced that keeping the emotional love tank full is as important to a marriage as maintaining the proper oil level is to an automobile. Running your marriage on an empty ‘love tank’ may cost you even more than trying to drive your car without oil.”

A second theme dealt with creating buckets or types in which to neatly categorize people, where the reader is supposed to find their category and follow the advice tied to that category or type. For example, dichotomous types were found in Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (male and female) and in Lerner’s book, which the researchers say “places women into two types: ‘bitches’ and ‘nice ladies.’” A third commonality was the step format, where the authors offered simple steps to implement solutions. They note that seven seems to be the “magic number” of steps, with The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, The Proven 7-Step Program for Saving Your Marriage, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

A fourth common element was emphasis on childhood for past models, where childhood experiences were major determinants of current relationship behavior. The fifth theme involved offering the reader exercises to complete.

A Lack of Evidence

Bibliotherapy is clearly cheaper than counseling. There is minimal risk to the consumer who invests in one book. Financially, self-help books are accessible to a greater number of people than life coaches and counselors, and there is arguably more anonymity in a book purchase than a relationship with a local therapist. This can be especially appealing to people with stigmatizing problems.

However, it’s difficult to test the effectiveness of these books. Researchers Norah Dunbar and Gordon Abra cite Rosen, stating that two main conclusions that can be drawn from bibliotherapy literature: “First, techniques applied successfully by a therapist are not always self-administered successfully,” and “second, the therapeutic value of a self-help book can only be determined by testing the specific instructions to be published under the conditions in which they are to be given. The fact that people are free to read all or only part of a particular book, and follow the book’s advice to varying degrees makes it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of self-help books for their therapeutic value.”

Corporate Self-Help

In addition to the typical female, middle-class, educated consumer buying the majority of self-help products, the corporate wallet has opened up to the happiness and success industry. In recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings, publicly traded Franklin Covey, whose mission is “enabling greatness in people and organizations everywhere,” warns shareholders of the risks of an “intensely competitive” industry with easy entry by new competitors. Franklin Covey sells training and consultancy on topics including leadership, execution, productivity, sales performance, customer loyalty, and educational improvement. In the New Statesman’s article, “The Happiness Industry,” a psychologist challenges whether the best interests of workers are served where corporations are paying the bills of coaches and consultants.

Egalitarianism versus Reality

In additional to the presumption of autonomy, there seems to be a certain egalitarian assumption underlying the demand for self-help: that the end result being sought is attainable to virtually all. Counters Valiunas: “Beauty, size, strength, health, energy, disposition, verbal or spatial or mathematical or emotional intelligence, ability in music or painting or oratory simply are not parceled out equally- and in any chosen activity, not even a single-minded devotion or expert training and wholesome diet can ensure that all will come out even in the end. Natural inequalities will always make for differences between one person and the next, and these differences will always be cause for unhappiness.”

However, Valiunas praises Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which instead of offering quick five or seven step fixes or dropping people into buckets such as genius and non-genius, suggests that years of hard work and deliberate practice can lead to self-improvement. “That does not mean everyone will be above average, as the old joke goes. It does mean that the average should rise, and everyone willing to put in the work be able more fully to realize his potential, if not necessarily his dreams.” However dreams of the perfect relationship, the perfect career, and the perfect weight continue to sell off the shelves.

References

Dunbar, N. and Abra, Gordon (2006). Popular Self-Help Books on Communications in Relationships: Who’s Writing them and What Advice Are They Giving? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany, Jun 16, 2006. http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/9/0/8/7/pages90873/p90873-1.php

Gunnell, B. (6 September 2004). The Happiness Industry. New Statesman.

Valiunas, A. (2010). The Science of Self-Help. The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.

Van Wyhe, J. George Combe Phrenologist and Natural Philosopher (1788-1858). The Victorian Web.

Image via maxriesgo / Shutterstock.

  • Carla Clark

    Hi Lindsay, great article and great observations!

    I was myself have co-authored a self-help book based purely on peer-reviewed research and was a self-help bookaphobe for the very reasons you mentioned: That few of the popular (and unpopular) authors are basing their books on empirically-tested research findings, despite having the high-end degrees that you described.

    I keep racking my brain as to why a few hard science facts are embedded in a sea of
    personal ideologies when these highly educated professionals should surely know of and employ findings from such research in their professions. Are there financial and time-based reasons behind it mixed with the difficulty in coalescing 100s-1000s of studies and techniques in engaging layman’s terms, or just because it has been the fashion for such books in the past?

    I wrote a short article about what makes an effective and reliable self-help book and give just two book examples outside of our own book: http://bit.ly/1stE4KU

    Could you tell me of any self-help books that you came across in your research that would fit the bill: informative and information rich, honest transparent simple and easy to read, and based on well-established science ? I’m in the midst of compiling a list of such books and they seem to be rare gems…

    • Lindsay Myers, MBA, MPHc

      Carla- thanks for your comment and I look forward to reading your article. The Dunbar and Abra and the Valiunas articles touch on this some (citations above). One noted that research is just not written in a way that’s attractive to the layman audience. I do think successful formulas have been identified and that’s why you see them repeated so often- just like if you look at the cover of popular magazines you can identify certain repeated titles “top 5..” or “the best/worst..” Just off the top of my head, I seem to recall that Maxwell Maltz cited a lot of studies in his book (a future topic I may write about). As far as more modern books, the ones that immediately come to mind are not based on empirical findings.

Lindsay Myers, MBA, MPH

Lindsay E. Myers, MBA, MPH, is a national healthcare consultant. Ms. Myers has served as Chief Financial Officer, Director, and Consultant to hospitals, physician practices, hospices, social services agencies, and public health clinics. She lives in Sarasota, Florida.
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