If you and I, as reader and writer, are going to communicate most effectively, there are some things you need to know about the "state of the art" of self-help and about my approach to self-help. I want you to recognize the scientific basis (or lack of it) for self-help methods. I want you to be aware of the assumptions I am making and the values I hold. I want you to know what I would like you to do while reading this book and afterwards. These 13 understandings should help you to view self-help realistically, and then, use it effectively.
Understanding 1: We, as humans, primarily learn to be the way we are; therefore, at any point in life, we can learn to be different. But, it may not be easy to change.
I assume there are reasons--causes--for everything we do, and that humans can learn to understand those reasons, which are dependable, "lawful," useful, cause and effect relationships. Therefore, each of us could presumably gain considerable control over our own futures by understanding and using the "laws of behavior," especially those in the form of self-help methods, such as:
I will describe many self-help methods in simple terms, step by step, almost like recipes in a cookbook. Then, we will learn how those methods can be used with specific problems, like fears, sadness, jealousy, selection of a mate, etc. If you understand how a problem started and what keeps it going, and how self-help methods work, you are better able to devise a way to change things. And that's what self-help is all about.
- If I repeatedly highly reward a desired behavior, it will probably increase in frequency.
- If I deeply relax for 10 minutes twice a day, I will probably be calmer throughout the day.
- If I learn new communication skills, such as empathy, I will probably get along better with people .
- If I can view a situation more positively or, at least, as being "lawful," I will probably be less upset.
I truly believe you learn by doing, not just by reading a book or talking about your problems. You must use the ideas. So, I'll give you lots of examples of how to use psychological methods in everyday life. Hopefully, you can then see many ways to use each method in your life--and, more importantly, will immediately try out the methods. If you don't use the idea you have read or heard about within a day or two, you will probably forget it.
As you read, ask yourself: How can I apply this idea or self-help method today or tomorrow? As you live, moment by moment, ask yourself: What have I learned about psychology that would help in this situation? This learning orientation is crucial to changing; it becomes automatic and contagious. A few successes will crush the old, cruel idea that you can't change things, then you get "high" on learning about yourself and how to relate to others better. I'd like to see you take an experimental approach to life, i.e. try out self-help methods to see what works for you. As you learn and experience more, you become more self understanding, more in control, less helpless and more confident, and better prepared for a whole life-time of growth. We all try to help ourselves all the time, so why not learn to be a really good, knowledgeable self-helper and steadily improve your future?
Understanding 2: Self-help is a relatively new, still-to-be-proven approach, involving a few well tested methods, but many methods are unproven. Research supporting self-help approaches is accumulating.
Psychologists have started to evaluate self-help methods objectively. However, the methods that have been researched and proven to be somewhat effective in most cases, like rewarding your own desirable behavior, relaxation, assertiveness training, and overcoming unreasonable fears by exposing yourself to the situation, aren't effective in every case (and neither is therapy). The better methods are, at best, effective only 80-90% of the time, even though you are working on just a small aspect of your life, such as a fear of public speaking. The only way to know if you are among the 10-20% for whom a particular self-help method doesn't work is to try it out yourself and see what happens. The profession, of course, needs to research self-help methods much more than it does (Rosen, 1987; Christensen & Jacobson, 1994), but, in any case, you must research your own self-help methods and efforts (see understanding #5). You are a different and unique person.
It may surprise many of you that so little is known with any certainty about self-help methods. Why is this so? Partly because few funding agencies and scientists are interested in this area. Also, because there is a dis-connect between personality and stress researchers and practitioners who would actually advocate or write about practical coping techniques. Approximately 14,000 research articles about "coping behaviors" were published between 1967 and 1999, but this research has yielded very little in the way of practical, personally useful methods for handling stress (Somerfield & McCrae, 2000). That is very unfortunate. Part of the reason is that academic researchers tend to look at group differences on a single measure; that's quicker and easier but very different than observing (within many individuals) the connections over time between an individual's use of specific efforts to cope and his/her immediate and long-term outcomes. Only the latter measures tell us much about how-to-cope.
Fortunately, a meta-analysis review of 40 well designed outcome studies of self-help treatments has been done (Scogin, Bynum, Stevens, & Calhoon, 1990). The focus was on written or audiotaped material used by persons with various problems (bad habits, fears, depression, poor skills) without regular contact with a therapist or a teacher--typical self-help material, like this book summarizes. The overall conclusions were that self-help is clearly more effective than no treatment at all and just as effective in most cases as treatment administered by a therapist. Do the results last? One study of bibliotherapy with depression found the benefits lasted for three years (Smith, Floyd & Scogin, 1997). These are important and impressive findings, if they hold up over time, suggesting that self-help can potentially offer you cheap and effective help. However, much of the self-help material evaluated by these researchers was written by the researchers; they may have been biased. Also, Scogin, et al. didn't use the popular self-help material available in the bookstore. However, another meta-analysis by Clum and Gould of 34 published self-help books and videos confirmed that popular material also seemed to be about as helpful as therapy by professionals. Gould and Clum (1993) concluded that "self-administered treatments achieve outcomes comparable to those of therapist-administered treatments." Indeed, some types of problems and patients benefit more from self-help than from therapy. Altogether 50 to 100 studies have shown that certain self-help books or methods have been helpful to certain people with certain problems, that doesn't mean a specific self-help method will help you with a specific problem. But it means that self-help isn't quackery.
Although having minimal contact with a therapist or a teacher beyond the self-help readings or tapes did not seem to help much in the above studies, Rosen (1987) provides evidence that people with certain problems (premature ejaculation and toilet training) are more likely to persevere and actually complete a treatment method if a therapist is continuously encouraging them to use the method and monitoring their progress, than if the "patients" are left entirely on their own to apply the method. That's hardly surprising. On the other hand, there is evidence (Journal of the AMA, 1986) showing that 9 out of 10 people who quit smoking do it on their own, not in a "program." Smokers in a program--working with a helper--have a 24% success rate; self-helpers working alone have a 48% success rate. Maybe the smokers in a program were more addicted than self-helpers working on their own. In any case, some people, no doubt, need personal guidance and encouragement from others. A method could be equally effective if applied by a therapist or by a self-helper alone, but obviously the method can not do you any good if you won't use it on your own. Becoming motivated to change is a critical and little understood part of changing (see step one in chapter 2 and chapter 4).
Why else do I believe self-help can help you? First, self-help methods are often based on therapy methods which, in general, have been shown to be fairly effective (Bergin & Lambert, 1978; Bergin & Garfield, 1994). Specific treatment methods have been shown to work dependably with 10 or so specific disorders (DeRubeis & Crits-Christoph, 1998; National Advisory Council, 1995). Second, early research on self-help suggested that it is more effective and certainly far more economical than therapy, e.g. with self-reinforcement (Kazdin, 1975), fears (Barlow & Craske, 1989; Clark, 1973; Marks, 1978), and vocational choice (Graff, 1972). More and more positive results continue to be reported (Christensen & Jacobson, 1994), especially when people are encouraged to work on their own towards self-improvement (Smyrnios & Kirkby, 1993). Third, several college self-help courses have been considered successful by 70-85% of the students (Grasha, 1974 ; Berrera and Glasgow, 1973; Ladd, 1973; Tucker-Ladd, 1994; Rakos and Grodek, 1984; Sherman, 1975).
It has been my experience with over 3000 students, who varied greatly in the seriousness of their problems, their motivation to learn or change, and their ability, that about half of the students in one semester became (or were already) rather effective self-helpers. Perhaps 10% to 20% devoted 6-8 hours a week to the course (16 weeks) and made remarkable progress, turning in well documented and impressive reports of self-improvement. At the other extreme, 10% to 20% did very little and appeared to learn little. Almost all "claimed" to have self-improved, of course. When I did a follow up 1 to 8 years after the course, 69% remembered making progress during the course, 5% said they didn't make progress, and 23% said "some progress, maybe." At that time, 1 to 8 years later, 8% of the problems worked on had gone away, 71% had definitely gotten better, 6% had not changed, and 5% had gotten worse. A 79% success rate for self-help several years later is pretty good, compared to the generally agreed upon 70% improvement rate for psychotherapy. But, keep in mind that 75% were still "working on it" and 40% expected it to always be a problem (Tucker-Ladd, 1994). Therefore, while the data is promising, psychologists pushing self-help or therapy can make no promises to an individual about curing a specific problem.
Finally, nearly 90% of all therapists consider self-help material helpful. Between 60% and 88% of professional psychotherapists, who are in a position to know what helps and what harms, recommend self-help books to their clients, almost 50% do so "often" or "regularly." Among the therapists who recommend self-help books, 92% to 94% consider the books to be "sometimes" or "often" helpful. As discussed in understanding #4, very few or no therapists observed self-help books doing harm (Starker, 1988).
Has the effectiveness of this book been assessed? No, certainly not in the sense that every method has been tested for every problem when used by every kind of person in every circumstance. That will take decades! Yes, in the sense that this general approach (see chapter 2) has been used successfully by me in approximately 100 classes over a period of 21 years. Please note, however, that there has been no objective evaluation of using this book alone; my follow up evaluation involved college students. My students were in a college self-help class for credit and also at the same time, as part of the class, in a paraprofessional-lead mutual helping group (much like a group of helpful friends). You will notice that I frequently recommend talking to friends. There is no way to tell, at this point, to what degree the help came from my class, the readings, or the group. All seemed helpful.
Reader Feedback about Psychological Self-Help
Psychological Self-Help (PSH) is a 30-year effort and it is still a work in progress. The book was started in 1970 to serve as an undergraduate college text for a new psychology course (Psychology Applied to Personal Adjustment) at Southern Illinois University. From 1974 to 1991, several editions served as the textbook for Mental Hygiene and for Introduction to Helping (Self-Help) at Eastern Illinois University. Over 3000 students have taken the 3-hour credit class, and each participated in a mutual helping group and completed a lengthy, well documented self-improvement project. By the way, even though this book gives you far more information than you could possibly get in any one class, the class/group/text/project combination is, in my opinion, the preferred way to teach effective self-help. Most of the students, I'd say 75% to 85%, in those classes and groups made impressive changes in important areas of their lives. As mentioned above, the remaining 15% to 25%, as you might expect, threw something together at the last minute.
Psychological Self-Help has been online at the Mental Help Net (MHN) site since March, 1997. Dr. John Grohol was the Director of MHN at that time. Dr. Mark Dombeck is Director now. The book is over 1,000 typed pages long and cites well over 2,000 references, plus linking to hundreds of Web sites. Since 1970, PSH has been repeatedly updated and revised. How much is it read? One can't tell, but during the last two years, PSH has had about 8,000 visitors per month who have viewed about 375,000 "pages" per month. That is about 1,500,000 hits per month. That still doesn't tell you much about how many words are read or how many ideas are grasped.
The main page of PSH provides a feedback form for visitors. I will give a very brief summary of the feedback. Out of all these visitors only 272 people have partially or completely submitted responses, about equal numbers were consumers (74) and professionals or students (72). The remaining 110 described themselves as "just wandering the Web." They were asked to list the most interesting chapter. Each of the 15 chapters were listed about equally often.
About 92% of the people giving feedback rated PSH as "comprehensive enough," but 7% felt more information was needed in specific areas. 97% judged PSH to be easily understood (but some commented they didn't have the time to read and use the information). On a 5-point Overall Rating scale, 63% rated PSH as a 5--"one of the best," and 34% rated it a 4--"a very good source." There were two ratings of 3--"average," one rating of 2--"Not great," and three ratings of 1--"Well, you tried!"
There is space at the end of the feedback form for comments. Here is sample of the comments: "excellent source;" "it has helped me;" "where can I buy the book?" "very supportive;" "persuaded me to seek therapy;" "led me to great material;" "a detailed and in depth review;" "my problems are ____(a request for help);" "I'm telling everyone about PSH;" "I started a S-H group;" "can I duplicate parts of PSH?," "can I translate it into my language?," etc.
Of course, this feedback can not be taken as an accurate assessment of PSH. For one thing it is only 272 responses (between March, 1997 and 1999) out of almost 100,000 visitors per year. This is also probably a positively biased sample of readers. Dependable, useable outcome research would involve careful, complex measurements of change as well as a comparison with the amount of change achieved by other matched experimental and/or control groups in order to identify the causes of the changes. Programmatic studies of many self-help methods used with hundreds of different kinds of problems in specific situations need to be done.
Besides the responses via the feedback form, I receive about an equal number of emails from readers, almost all positive. Some are touching, such as those who are desperate for help, others who describe using self-help to turn their lives around, people without resources who are grateful for the free guidance, spouses and parents who very much want to help a loved one, former students who share fond memories of being in the class/groups, and many others.
I believe some self-help methods can be used by some people to make some changes in some areas. There is a lot more to learn.
Summary: learning and carefully applying self-help methods (which isn't just vaguely "trying to change" on your own) seem to be about as effective for many people as undergoing much more costly psychotherapy. This may astound many of you, especially those who are in awe of professionals. The data, thus far, also suggests that minimally trained "paraprofessionals" are as effective with specific problems as highly trained therapists with years of experience (Christensen & Jacobson, 1994; Dawes, 1997). This too is amazing. Your understanding of these findings may be increased if you know that two thirds or more of psychotherapy by professional practitioners is not based on the best and latest scientific research (Sanderson, 2002). Perhaps the self-helper (or paraprofessional) is like a mechanic in comparison to a physicist or engineer. You can't expect your mechanic to design and perfect a revolutionary engine or fuel, but you can expect him/her, and not an expensive engineer, to fix your car. Perhaps in psychology we are too dependent on scientists and high-paid therapists to fix our minds, our feelings, and everyday relationships, when we could be seeing trained assistants working under professional supervision or reading and doing a lot of self-changing ourselves.
Before I leave this "understanding" I want to divorce science-based psychological self-help from other approaches which may, in ordinary person's mind, be considered a part of self-help. First, there are thousands of self-help groups (discussed in chapter 5) and online support lists, forums, or boards--some are very beneficial, some are not. Second, there are several thousand inspirational/spiritual/motivational books and tapes published every year--it is mostly "feel good" material, but I seldom review it. I prefer more specific methods which have an empirical basis. Third, there is the popular psychology found in many self-help books, on the radio, on tapes, and on TV. Much of this material is not produced by outstanding psychologists, but rather by publishers and media corporations designed to sell books, talk shows, and personalities. I will review a couple of articles about this type of "self-help."
Are self-help writers generally more snake oil salesmen than scientists?
In answer to this question, Rosen, Glasgow & Moore (2003) say, “Yes, in many ways” and they document that answer in sobering and, for psychologists, embarrassing ways. First of all, what some writers call the “advice industry” is big business: books, tapes, videos, seminars, coaching, CD’s, groups, workshops, etc., are sold for a total of about $3 billion a year. Most of these educational services have not been proven to be effective. And they are pushed by advertisements filled with enticing promises and unsupported praise from their publishers and other self-help writers. Nona Wilson (2003) also documents the massive and unfettered-by-facts commercialization of self-improvement (via the development of star personalities), such as by John Gray, Tony Robbins, the Oprah-Dr. Phil team, and many others. Self-improvement has often been turned into entertainment and infomercials. Billions have been made off of troubled, hurting people hoping for help from “professionals” on TV and radio and in print.
The real questions are: Is this any way for a discipline, claiming to be a science, to behave? Is deceptive marketing and over-selling of products and services beneficial in the long run to the public or to the helping professions? What happens when the promises are not fulfilled? Some, no doubt, will seek self-improvement via the next “hot” book or workshop by a big name. But, many others may give up on even authentic professional help, science-based books, and other established sources of help. Even the esteemed American Psychological Association, once the bastion of science, has been deeply involved in publishing and selling unproven tapes, videos, books and training programs. Who warns or protects the needy-but-unaware-of-the-facts public?
I have to admit that my specialty (healing, growth and prevention via psychosocial education), as a whole, often looks like it is expending enormous efforts to “make big bucks” while almost totally neglecting to do and advocate outcome research and avoiding informing the consumer about the sometimes flimsy scientific basis for our products and services. The two articles I just cited should be required reading for every real or pretend professional…and for every user of self-help books, seminars, videos, TV & radio talk shows, and other services.
The above authors present persuasive data to make their points. For instance, the research done in the heyday of self-help, the 1970’s, was a commendable effort and yielded both positive and negative findings. In the negative direction, it was reported that many self-help books were hardly read (Tony Robbins says only 10% of self-help readers get beyond the first chapter…I doubt if there is any hard data supporting that.). Even those who read the self-help material often do not get satisfactory results, certainly not the outcomes promised. Some studies have reported that 50% of the subjects in a “self-administered group” (they just read self-help material) didn’t understand or follow the book’s recommendations. Some researchers found that some popular books actually upset more readers than were helped. Studies of other books showed that the written material was fairly successful when monitored by a therapist or researcher, but were not successful when self-applied. These authors concluded: all self-help material, all kinds of readers, and the various conditions under which the information is read (or heard) need to be researched. One can’t just assume “Oh, it will help to read this.” [NB: In contrast with these authors, I have found that books are rarely harmful, but many books are abandoned early on or just not used much. Books are usually inexpensive but still not a wise buy if bought because they have a clever title or misleading ads or if they are not read.]
Reality is that most self-help books are not published because they have been objectively shown to be helpful. Instead, the publisher’s editor believed it would sell well. Rosen, Glasgow & Moore (2003) explicitly mention that certain well known writers have published a new edition, using misleading claims, even after negative empirical results from the first edition had been reported in the literature. They conclude that money, in these cases, was clearly more important to writers and publishers than professional standards. Even when a book appears to produce desired changes for some readers, the percent of successful readers was often 50% or much less. So, is this a waste of time and money for over 50% of the readers? These kinds of data are relevant to the purchaser but almost never included in the ads. Also, I’ve never seen an ad for a book that says the content is essentially the same as in 20 or 30 other books…any self-help reader can tell you there is great redundancy in this literature.
In a survey of all the bibliotherapy books published between 1990 and 1999, Rosen, Glasgow & Moore found only 15 well controlled studies. The ratio of self-help evaluations to self-help books is tiny. Again, stated in another way, the data suggest that the time and professional investment in trying to help AND make money at the same time is perhaps hundreds of times more than the energy put into careful, honest research.
The conclusions and recommendations of Rosen, Glasgow & Moore are sobering: To the reader they say “don’t take the claims for a book seriously,” unless there is independent empirical evidence. (They also say “don’t blame yourself if a book doesn’t help you, it may not be your fault.”) To the psychologist or any self-help writer in an allied discipline, they say “the idea of individual professionals giving psychology away was and is overly optimistic.” Thus, the idea that one person could develop and adequately evaluate a self-help procedure for a specific problem should be discarded. Instead, self-help should adopt an objective, programmatic approach, more like “public health,” involving (a) several professionals from different disciplines who (b) undertake a coordinated effort to design science-based self-change procedures for a specific problem, (c) select a large representative sample of “clients” for a clinical trial, (d) carefully educate the users in how to use the methods, (e) thoroughly evaluate the behavior-change techniques using a variety of outcome measures, and (f) continuously improve the self-change system over time before marketing their product. I say, “Amen!” I’m ready to join a team.
Is the “advice industry” personally beneficial to some people? Are infomercials harmful to psychology as a profession?
Many well trained professional therapists view the “advice industry” as a regrettable but unavoidable annoyance. It is an elephant in the house but most psychologists may try to ignore it. Nona Wilson (2003) thinks that may be like ignoring a cancer that could “displace” the professionals and science. Her argument is that once therapeutic skills and knowledge are “offered for sale” in the open marketplace, it is tempting to popularize these services within the entertainment industry, placing them in the hands of advertisers and corporate investors. In the extreme, the results could be something like the Jerry Springer Show, capitalizing on sensationalized sex and relationship problems, or the Oprah Show, a seemingly sincere and emotional one-hour production involving charming personalities giving personal, relationship and spiritual advice. Most observers will realize this is an hour-long smooth, polished commercial to sell advice and products (books, media personalities, the next show, etc.). The Oprah Program is certainly a more impressive love-in or pep-rally type of show than your individual therapist could possibly produce during a once-a-week one-hour therapy session. Do such shows distract distressed people from getting professional help? Or, does Oprah and the products she sells fix problems as well as therapists? We don’t know.
The television talk shows have been defended by many psychologists, including me, because it was assumed (there was no proof) that they increased the general public’s interest in and awareness of psychological problems and provided some helpful information about coping. Indeed, between 1970 and 1990 I thought TV, like the early Phil Donahue shows, the major way to provide practical, realistic psychosocial knowledge to everyone. Somewhere things went awry. I still have hope—what better choice is there?
Now, Dr. Wilson (2003) argues that popularized and commercialized pop-psychology degrades and distracts from the basic scientific psychological methods and treatment. This quietly tolerated growth industry (we don’t know, yet, if it is malignant) has quickly expanded in 15-20 years to become huge, wealthy, and powerful. And I agree with her that all this young pop-psychology, but especially the trash, may have a down-side that could seriously harm its original sources, i.e. therapists and the science of helping. Both the mental health professions and the public should stay alert to the dangers. In the mid-90’s there were about 150 shows offering advice each week. They were popular and profitable, e.g. each Montel Williams’ show costs about $50,000 to produce but it earns $400,000. It is estimated that Oprah has earned about 800 million dollars, largely by offering psychological advice, support, and motivation. Just because a show makes money doesn’t prove it improves the listeners. But millions would say they have benefited from Oprah’s shows and the books she recommended.
Even though any knowledgeable viewer can tell the TV shows are primarily to entertain, hold attention and sell products, rather than to pass on science-based psychological knowledge, the talk shows (and self-help books) have certainly influenced millions of people’s ideas about the nature of mental health, psychological treatment, who are the experts, and so on. There are many personal opinions about the content but virtually no objective data about the psychological impact of 25 years of talk shows and self-help books. Dr. Wilson suggests that the primary focus of mass media gurus has shifted from sympathy for the victim during the 1980’s Recovery Movement to critical, scolding, take responsibility lectures, e.g. Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil, in the 1990s. She also believes that the players in mass media psychology have become far more powerful—more influential with the public—than the professional helpers and their disciplines (that the shows take their material from). I believe that. The tail (entertaining performances—some quite elaborate) is wagging the dog (the scientific foundation for psychological help).
As several communication experts have observed: Watching emotions and humor seduces us away from hard reality and the intellect. Emotions appeal to us more than reason. This is well known by advertisers and TV producers. So, the mass advice industry attracts viewers with dramatic emotions. Often we are convinced that the person who expresses emotions and arouses emotions in us is a genuine, honest, real person who is working towards a solution to his/her problem. And, Dr. Wilson says the advice industry tries to persuade the audience that emotions are unquestionably valid and all one needs to know about a situation or relationship. Emotions and “emotional reasoning” are so valued, she says, that pop-psychology considers personal feelings to be a reasonable way to make decisions about coping. Consider the advice “listen to your inner voice,” “follow your heart,” and “if you feel that way it must be so.” Letting emotions over-ride logic, reason, and knowledge is a dangerous way to go, hardly in line with established psychology.
Another powerful point made by Dr. Wilson is that the advice industry (talk shows, call-in radio, self-help books, workshops, etc.) strives to get everyone involved and thinking alike, e.g. believing there are one or two major causes for the problem being discussed, such as domestic violence, unfaithfulness, over-eating, addictions and on and on. Media advisors try to explain such events in just a few minutes; there is no time for considering individual differences, backgrounds, and unique circumstances. To sound profound or to make a quick sale, the advice-giver also wants to propose a simple solution (usually buy my book or seminar) which seems believable to many listeners. The mass media advisor often offers a one-cure-fits-all solution so that all the listeners can feel they have benefited from the advice. On the other hand, the thorough individual psychotherapist explores many different details of the client being treated—the individual’s background, the disorder, the needs, the circumstances, the stress, the strengths, the hopes for the future and so on. They see the person as a unique individual and the treatment is tailored to serve that one person. In contrast, the media advisor looks for commonality among us in an effort to interest and serve all the viewers, readers, and audience. That isn’t good advice giving…it is serving some other purpose.
The advice industry offers not just generalities but also vague advice, rather than explicitly defined methods. (Often, however, the advice giver will say the solution must involve five specific steps, then the steps are left vague.) Dr. Wilson gives several examples of Dr. Phil’s advice: “have the courage to change your life,” “realize you don’t have to get mad,” ”if something is wrong with your relationship it’s because you set it up that way,” “you have to teach people how to treat you,” “take personal responsibility,” “you either get it or you don’t,” “life is managed, not cured,” etc. There is no empirically based professional knowledge and little clinical acumen in these comments but Dr. Phil calls his own advice “transformative.” I’d call his advice mostly showmanship or platitudes (a common comment) or truisms (so self-evident it doesn’t need to be said). Most of these statements sound a lot like the ordinary Introduction to Psychology student who thinks she/he has come up with a solution to some psychological problem simply by stating what the outcome should be (example: “I’ll stop procrastinating by studying every night”), without any description whatsoever of exactly how one might actually get from no studying to studying every night.
This commercialization of psychology causes harm, says Dr. Wilson. It pretends to offer wisdom but instead offers unoriginal ideas expressed in an authoritive, pretentious manner. That may sell books the next day but she thinks it probably lowers interest in established psychology in the long run. It would be quite possible and interesting to investigate the consequences of a person becoming deeply immersed in the advice industry (books, talk shows, workshops…) in terms of seeking more or less psychological help via therapy or in terms of respect one has for Clinical Psychologists and other therapists. Actually, some of the star media advisors, such as Tony Robbins, are quite hostile towards psychotherapy.
Advertising is critiqued by Dr. Wilson because of its powerful role in defining “the good life.” The strategy of advertising is to arouse new wants and feelings of insecurity and then offer solutions (for a price). Psychological needs fit well into that scheme (some would call it a scam), it is pretty easy to make someone want better relationships, more power, or to feel inadequate or insecure or unsure of how others feel about them. Advice, like advertising, usually involves selling something. In talk shows, the entire program is the commercial. Tony Robbins sold 25 million copies of his book, Personal Power, mostly through late night infomercials—do you suppose that was the best book available between 1990 and 1997? No. Dr. Wilson describes in detail how Oprah and Dr. Phil teamed up to produce a series of self-promotional shows to sell his books. Dr. Phil interviews people briefly, and then just as briefly tells them what to do. His advice is not profound, it is not based on research, and it is similar to what an overly confident neighbor might tell you. But in the right circumstances, it can seem impressive. Most practicing psychologists think giving quick, blunt, over-simplified advice is a poor therapeutic response.
Psychologists invited to talk shows have been encouraged to be interesting, clever, and describe brief cases…but to avoid “reciting boring statistics.” Other guests report being encouraged to stir up excitement by confronting members of the audience; other professionals report being surprised by attacks on the show from other hostile guests who were clearly invited by the show’s producers. Does this sound more like entertainment or sharing professional knowledge and expertise?
Dr. Wilson observes that professionals who haven’t had the luck to make their fortune by getting on a TV talk show are often encouraged to develop their own Web site. This, too, may encourage advertising and seem to underscore the commercial aspects of the helping professions, especially if the Web site implies “I’m a better therapist than other online therapists.” She again uses John Gray, who has a correspondence school doctorate and no license to practice, as an example of commercialism gone amuck. Gray has developed, in addition to his books, an expensive training program for counselors, Counseling Centers for the counselors to work in, a pyramid system to sell his various books and games, a Web site to sell “romantic accessories,” including lingerie, and several major efforts with publishers to sell his books. In terms of advertising, when I started practicing psychology in 1960, it was acceptable to publish in a local paper a small formal announcement about your opening an office. Any other advertisement was frowned upon. Things have changed…for the better?
Wilson contends that whenever professionals enter the marketplace, perhaps selling a book, therapy, a group, or other service, they experience pressures to impress others as well as be entertaining. They are also likely to feel some temptations to make overly optimistic promises, use testimonials (which are not scientific or objective), and approve blatantly misleading ads. These kinds of enticements tend to sabotage the integrity of professional service and research. Professional helpers need to guard against being influenced by the “advice industry.” Some psychologists have insisted that their publisher tone down the advertisements.
Lastly, there is to me one more special irony in the current situation. By dealing with psychological content--personal and interpersonal problems—TV and radio talk shows, workshops and self-help books have become very popular and made enormous profits. Clearly, the general public has enthusiastically welcomed dealing publicly with these topics, giving their time and their money. Yet, during the same 20-30 years, there has been almost no public support for meaningfully teaching practical how-to-cope psychological information in our public schools and colleges. Likewise, there has been no support for psychosocial education coming from mental health professionals, university faculties, or public school officials. This contrast seems strange; why might this be?
Why don’t we want realistic, practical psychology in schools? Probably for several reasons, depending on the impact these changes would have on one’s own career or role. But I believe Dr. Wilson’s analysis of the advice industry suggests another major barrier to change. If a psychological or interpersonal helper had a chance to be interviewed or to go on TV or radio, this would be appealing to many because it could yield several benefits, such as improve his/her reputation, result in more sales, 15 minutes of fame, status, and others. In addition, the professional would have little to lose as long as he/she doesn’t make some embarrassing mistake. Such a guest would not be assuming any grave professional or legal responsibilities, even if they interviewed someone on the air for a few minutes and gave some simple advice. Contrast this situation to the psychologist who agrees to teach a small, daily, year-long, personally useful, skills-oriented psychology self-help class to a small, intimate group of High School juniors. This would deal with each student’s immediate concerns and with preparing for the future. Wow! That could be scary for the teacher. It would be an awesome responsibility requiring a high level of skills, hard work, devotion to every student, and perhaps involving some legal risks because it would be so intimate an involvement in the students’ lives. That might be why psychology classes are not proposed. Yet, if you, as the teacher, had a truly significant impact on each student’s life, you would surely feel proud and deeply gratified. And the world might benefit. [End of lecture. (:-)]
It seems fairly safe to conclude that the meteoric rise of psychological topics and advice in the media is not due to great writers, creative producers of the shows, self-help literature of proven effectiveness, astonishing methods displayed by media advisors, or due to support from professionals in psychology. The popularity and the profitability of the advice industry are surely attributable to the commercial drive of corporate America—the nearsighted drive to be as profitable as possible. As yet, we have opinions but no data to indicate if the advice industry has, on balance, advanced or harmed the helping professions…or, more importantly, if all this advice has helped the general public to grow and cope better or not. This lack of adequate research is what I would underscore.