If you live in certain neighborhoods—like mine—you get the impression that everyone disparages self-help books.
Yet, there must be an enormous market for such books. Otherwise, publishers would not be publishing them.
So, either a lot of people are suckers for self-help or the books offer some helpful advice.
At a time when psychiatrists are offering pills and therapists avoid telling people what to do, where else can you go when you need some advice?
Megan McArdle is puzzled by it all, and with good reason. She points out that intellectual snobs tend to look down their collective noses at self-help books.
Serious New York intellectuals take their personal problems to licensed professionals, men and women of science. Their reading habits tend to gravitate to books offering the latest scientific research.
Then, they gullibly accept any piece of information that is presented as scientific fact.
Writers like Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks and Jonah Lehrer have profited handsomely by bringing the latest in cognitive neuroscience to the masses.
Of course, Jonah Lehrer has recently fallen from grace, for reasons that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with unethical conduct.
[Lehrer’s] IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.
If these authors do not know enough to challenge or question the findings of neuroscientists, what does that say about those who embrace their ideas as the ultimate in sophisticated thinking?
In truth, that’s one reason why bloggers like yours truly take the time to debunk the pretensions of writers like Brooks and Lehrer.
McArdle puzzles about why intellectuals are so averse to self-help. In this ironic passage, she suggests that they seem to be averse to help:
For of course, all of the intellectuals I know have strong and happy marriages, top-notch management skills, 401(k)s filled to bursting with wisely allocated investment, and a body fat percentage that would be the envy of many supermodels. No, wait, that's Paul Ryan I'm describing. So suddenly I'm confused. Why don't intellectuals read self-help books? Oh, right, because we're too smart for that sort of thing. This is, after all, a group of people who takes the observation that "practice makes perfect" more seriously if it is attached to a study published in Psychology Review.
If an intellectual needs help he will probably tell himself that no self-help book can provide what he needs.
After all, he is so unique, so idiosyncratic, so individuated that no piece of general knowledge could ever address his problems.
If an intellectual repairs to his local therapist, he will not be seeking help. He will want a tailor-made treatment that gives him insight and understanding that expand his consciousness.
It will not matter that it helps him. He wants to be recognized as a superior being who is beyond the mundane rules that govern everyone else’s life.
He can go about his business, fortified with the knowledge that his pain and suffering is a sign that he is simply too good for the world.
He wants his status affirmed, nothing more or less.
McArdle is a financial journalist, so when she looks at self-help books she looks especially at those that involve financial planning.
She notes that most of them offer a simple message: pay off your debts and save more.
Obviously, people who follow this advice can improve their lives drastically, without benefit of cognitive neuroscience.
If you are tempted to think that you can safely ignore this advice, I would point out that our great nation is heading for a fiscal precipice because we have made a habit of spending too much, borrowing too much, and not paying our debts.
By confining the ethic of thrift to self-help books we have trivialized it to the point where we, as a nation, feel good about ignoring it.
After all, Paul Krugman has been peddling an ethic of spending, and he won a Nobel Prize.
What would happen to a country that operated on Krugmanian principles? We don’t even have to speculate. We see it all around us.
When you advise people to spend or to save you are in the realm of ethics. You are telling people what they should do. You are not describing what happens, which is properly the domain of science.
It will come as news to the neuroscience crowd, but science cannot tell you what you should do. It can describe what happens when you do X and it can describe what happens when you do Y, but it cannot tell you which one you should do.
In our highly individuated age, where people are so insecure that taking the least piece of advice seems to threaten the shaky edifice of their self-esteem, everyone denigrates ethical precepts in favor of science, because science, like psychoanalysis, never tells people what they should do.