Books can be valuable tools for self-understanding and change, but are they always worth the investment of time and money?
One of the top selling self-help titles has been Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! by Anthony Robbins.
In their Scientific American Mind article Do Self-Help Books Help?, Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld use this as an example of self-help authors who “often make grandiose promises which invite a skeptical look.”
They note the dust jacket describes Robbins as an “acknowledged expert in the psychology of change” but “lacks any formal mental health credentials.
“Elsewhere, Robbins has made eyebrow-raising claims, such as that he can cure any psychological problem in a session, make someone fall in love with you in five minutes and even revive brain-dead individuals. (If he can do this with enough people, he might sell even more books.)”
hey continue, “Even trained psychologist authors are not immune to hyperbole. Wayne Dyer, a counseling psychologist, wrote You’ll See It When You Believe It: The Way to Your Personal Transformation. The dust jacket promises that ‘through belief you can make your most impossible dreams come true, turn obstacles into opportunities, rid yourself of guilt and inner turmoil, and spend every day doing the things you love to do.’
“That’s nice work if you can get it.”
“Typically investigators recruit participants with a specific problem (such as depression, panic attacks or obesity). They take objective measures of the problem before and after the bibliotherapy and compare such statistics with a group that gets no book or any other treatment… Some studies also compare bibliotherapy with face-to-face psychotherapy.
“Results generally demonstrate that bibliotherapy leads to greater mental health improvements than no treatment, and it often equals the benefits obtained by psychotherapy.”
That may sound very encouraging, but the article adds some warnings about the limitations of such research.
More from the article:
Using Self-Help Books Wisely
• Choose books based on research or on valid psychological principles of change. See if the author makes any references to published research that support his or her claims.
Some books that have been used with good effects in bibliotherapy studies are:
• Examine the credentials of the author. Proclaiming oneself an expert (or appearing on Oprah) does not an expert make.
• Be wary of books that make promises that they obviously cannot keep, such as curing a phobia in five minutes or fixing a failing marriage in a week. Typically these books are based on the personal biases and preferences of the author rather than on valid psychological principles.
• Beware of authors that offer “one size fits all” solutions. For example, a book that tells you to always express your anger to your spouse fails to take into account the complexity of the people involved and the specifics of the marriage.
• If the problem is a serious one, such as clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizophrenia, you are better off seeking professional treatment than reading a self-help book.