Wisdom, sycophants and advice that won’t work

I have been watching and reading a lot of Brene Brown stuff recently, and for the most part I feel like she has been able to identify and tap into some important concepts that chime true with my own understanding of attachment, shame, perfectionism and self-compassion, but there is a part of me that is a bit uncomfortable. When I’ve watched recent interviews, such as this one with Oprah I find myself responding to the comments like “that is so powerful”, “right, right, right” and “there are so many things I love about you” with a bit of a cringe. I think it is partly that it feels like a sycophantic mutual love-in amongst a particular group who have formed their own self-improvement echo chamber, and partly that the whole American over-the-top-ness of it makes it come across as less than sincere.

Obviously Oprah is in herself an incredibly impressive person: She is self-made despite horrible early life experiences and someone who adds welcome diversity to the line-up of bland white males and slim, magazine-beautiful young women that populate American TV, she has popularised acceptance of LGBT people and been empathic about a wide variety of life experiences and mental health problems. Plus she is a significant philanthropist (albeit that her charitable activity in itself is not entirely without criticism). However, Oprah and her ilk are so non-critical of patent nonsense from self-help books about spirituality and positive vibrations to dodgy hormone treatments that it feels like a huge missed opportunity to have not put a threshold of scientific scrutiny (or at least critical thinking) to claims when she has such an enormously influential platform.

Likewise it is hard for me to reconcile why a credible researcher like Brene Brown would be prepared to be thrown in that mix and start marketing self-help courses for Oprah watchers. It doesn’t seem to make sense without attributing a financial motivation for accessing the wider audience that is more powerful than professional ethics.

I’m going to read all her books and then I’ll be in a better place to comment, but I’d like to think I’m not being naive or rigidly judgemental here. I’m sure if I felt that I had an important message to share and Oprah offered access to her audience of millions, and I felt that would help to change the world I would make compromises too, both to get the message out and to get the book sales, raised profile and funds that would enable further work. And I fully accept that there have to be coffee table books that are accessible to wider segments of the population than the referenced texts of scientists and clinicians that are more closely tied to the evidence base from which they are drawn. But something still feels uncomfortable.

So, is it just a cultural divide or my own hatred of insincere praise, or is it something deeper that is rotten about the self-help culture?

I’ve started to think that the self-help world, like the diet industry, is rotten at the core because it is invested in failure. I don’t mean the books often recommended by mental health services as ‘bibliotherapy’ that address mental health problems based on well-evidenced psychological techniques like CBT here, which are predominantly helpful. I mean the 2000+ books per year of home-brew wisdom about how to be happier, grasp control of your destiny, be more successful, fix your marriage in a week, get more energy, unlock your chains! Most of these have no evidence base whatsoever, and the authors often have no scientific or mental health credentials. A cynic might say they are selling false hope. Yet the same unhappy people try again and again to change their lives by reading the next book, spending more and more money to make changes presented as easy that are actually unsuccessful for the vast majority of those that try them out.

Just like the diet industry, self help is an industry that has had meteoric growth. Yet little of that is based on any evidence of either the underlying principles or the efficacy of outcomes. There is minimal evaluation, and what there is isn’t promising. In fact, recent research (albeit on a very small sample) has shown that reading self-help literature actually makes people more depressed and anxious!

“The sale of self-help books generated over $10 billion in profits in 2009 in the US, which is a good reason to find out if they have a real impact on readers,” said Sonia Lupien, Director of the Centre of Studies on Human Stress (CSHS). The results of the study showed that consumers of problem-focused self-help books presented greater depressive symptoms and that growth oriented self-help books consumers presented increased stress reactivity compared to non-consumers. No difference was found in any variable according to whether people had read self-help books or not, suggesting they have little impact on functioning. In fact “the best predictor of purchasing a self-help book is having bought one in the past year” suggesting that the same group of people repeatedly buy self-help books but aren’t actually changed by reading them.

In the same way, every new year consumers with weight-loss resolutions in the UK spend £335 million, yet a month later for more than half of them there is no measurable impact on their weight or fitness. Overall the diet industry has an incredible failure rate: 95% of people re-gain the weight they lose. Yet the consumers keep on spending. In the USA consumers spend more on diet-related purchases than the combined value of the government’s budget for health, education and social care. And yet a little basic knowledge of the subject could inform them that most of the things they try won’t work, and that there are very well established links between diet and health.

It seems I am not alone in this discomfort, and Brene Brown herself has felt it and responded. I still think she is one of the good guys, and clearly there are gender politics and marketing influences she struggles to counter, but it remains a fact that there is little to distinguish the good from the bad in the self-help field. I wonder if it is time for those of us who write from an evidence base to respond to that and to start a website to evaluate claims from self-help literature?

One thought on “Wisdom, sycophants and advice that won’t work

  1. You cite many of the reservations about the self help industry I personally have but the book “Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless” encapsulates most of my criticisms of that genre. Also Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Smile or die” has a good take on some of that self help/ pull your self up by the bootstraps philosophy.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say Psychologists and therapists shouldn’t write them as I think they can start people thinking, but I would say they are rarely a magic bullet that they proclaim themselves to be.

    Liked by 1 person

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