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Self help or self harm?

March 19th, 2005

Dr Petra

In the Guardian’s Weekend magazine today, Bibi van der Zee evaluates relationship self help books. Sadly she either didn’t discover the wealth of research on self help texts, or she decided to not to write about it, or maybe an overzealous sub-editor cut that part of her story.

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because if you’re going to write a review of self help books, I feel it would have helped to share the evidence about them. So here it is…

Self help authors often aren’t qualified
Research on self help books shows the majority of authors of the top sex/ relationship texts have dubious qualifications, unrecognised by academic institutions. Or they’re award winning salesmen, or have many years journalistic experience, but they’re not qualified and respected therapists, researchers or practitioners.

What these books have in common is an easy to grasp format – usually based on enormous gender differences, a smattering of something that sounds scientific, and a title repeated in mantra like fashion every few paragraphs. Oh, and they’re all lucky that most other self help authors and journalists use these texts for other books and features – so they get more coverage than work by reputable, qualified folk.

Self help authors use personal experience instead of evidence
Reputable research on search on sex and relationships involves talking to a large number of people about their lives through interviews, surveys or similar, and comparing that information with other published quality studies.

Unfortunately the authors of many self help books, and journalists, misunderstand that this is what’s needed to help inform guidance or information. Instead, they assume self help books have to be written solely from personal experience – meaning they can dismiss an author who writes about relationships but is divorced or separated. And also meaning they miss that the best self help information is based on evidence, not personal experience.

Self help books sound good, but lack substance
Analysis of self help texts shows they have a surface plausibility – men and women come from different planets, where men can’t ask for directions and women are overly emotional. Relationships are supposedly doomed to failure because the sexes are so completely different. The only way to cope is for women to learn and accept that men are biologically incapable of putting the loo seat down or not flicking the TV channels, and to learn to live with it.

They quote science and studies but never reference them. No other scientists use their ideas. And a critical reading shows them to be just daft. In one top selling text men are described as having spatially designed brains, making them ideally (and biologically) suited to the job of air traffic controller. The same book also explains due to biology men are unable to ask for directions. Have you ever heard of an air traffic controller who can’t ask for directions?

Self help books aren’t ‘just a bit of fun’ – some contain dangerous advice
Academic research of top selling self help books has revealed them to contain outdated, incorrect or ill informed ‘advice’, that wouldn’t be recommended by a counsellor or other health professional. Some texts contain sinister messages that advise people to isolate themselves from friends or family, or not to share they’re following the self help book with other health professionals, or tell women if they don’t follow the message in the self help text, it’s their fault if they’re battered or otherwise abused by their partner.

Within van der Zee’s feature, she quotes a publisher who says ‘these books can really help people’. But independent evaluations have proven over and again they do more damage than good. Which is why my colleague Gary Wood has renamed them ‘self harm’ books.

How to pick a proper self help text
Not all self help books are bad. However, you need to be careful about your choices. A reputable and useful self help book is recommended and used by sex/ relationship practitioners and therapists. It contains referenced, accurate, contemporary advice.

The author of the book is transparent about their qualifications, and is a qualified and accredited member of a professional body, who undergoes regular continued professional development, and who doesn’t rely solely on selling their books or products for their income.

If people asked these questions more often, the better self help books would rise to the top of the bestsellers lists – instead of those currently there – the impostors.

You’d never buy a cookery book from someone who’d done no more than bake a cake once. Or a car manual by someone who had lots of mates with car trouble but weren’t a trained mechanic. Or a DIY text from someone who said if your shelving falls down and injures you it’s your fault for not following their book to the letter.

Don’t settle for less with sex and relationship books. Only an author who isn’t qualified or doesn’t care, is happy to put their name to a book that claims to help, but is more likely to cause you harm.

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