Sunday, September 16, 2012

Why Do Intellectuals Disparage Self-Help Books?

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.

McArdle explains:

[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.


Anonymous said...

well, Mr Krugman got his Nobel prize for trade theory, not macro. The whole Keynesian thing fell apart under Nixon-Ford-Carter when we had stagflation; impossible under the Phillips curve. I think the monetarists won. Problem is, they don't have advice to "fix" economy other than keep the banking system from collapsing. Always a market for snake-oil salesmen.

Anonymous said...

I laugh as I take a break from my self-help book to browse your blog this afternoon.
(God's-honest truth!!)
Note, I'm signing in as anonymous, and I'm reading my self-help book on Kindle, so I may have just added to your data set...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Much appreciated... thank you.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, I'll tell you what you SHOULD do, you should continue blogging because you're very good at it. (and we enjoy reading it!)

Anonymous said...

I second that, 4:03 anonymous!
I'd like to add that, while I do not run around telling everyone what self-help book I am reading at the moment, I do share with my closest friends or family when asked.

And, while individual therapy is just that, I know that reading a book requires extra sensitivity and self-reflection on my part--a lot more homework!! I must break apart the book for the elements that apply to me now. I know better than to try to fix 20 broken things at once, so I know I must decode the items for the priority actions for ME.

Maybe these intellectuals you write about are too used to being spoon-fed?

George Boggs said...

Speaking as a psychophysicist and one interested in, but not involved in, the psychologucal "help" industry, I find it amazing that people buy these books.

My amazement has nothing to do with the claimed competence of the authors. I'm sure they are good at what they do.

No, my complaint has more to do with lawn mowers. Have you ever bought one of those "some assembly required" lawn mowers? If you have, you've almost surely experienced the "what do they mean by that" moment while you were reading the assembly manual. The same is true of children's toys and software manuals.

Following written directions is not difficult because the writers are stupid, it's difficult because such things are notoriously difficult to write. The late Alphonse Chapanis, an engineering psychologist at Hopkins, had this classic example, a sign posted outside an elevator:

For improved elevator service
Walk up one floor or down two

An large number of people interpreted that simple message incorrectly and walked up one or down two floors before pressing the button.

There is little hope for writing an instruction manual to fix your life if our most talented technical writers can't write a manual to walk you through assembling a lawnmower or installing a light switch.

Dennis said...

In truth are not most books self help in a larger sense. Even the fiction we read, many times, is well researched of many different subjects. If I read Fred Kuttner's "Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounter's Consciousness" am I not helping myself to understand the world around me in a different way? Even reading Lincoln Child's "The Third Gate" helps in my understanding of Egyptology and the ways history is studied not withstanding the parapsychology involved.
Very little we read does not add something to our ability to understand certain aspects of our lives.
Yes I know we are talking about books that are specifically defined as self help, but what I am positing is that anything that widens our understanding is in essence a self help book.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

What about Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit... it might not be considered to be self-help, but it contains much useful advice.

And Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism. It contains cognitive exercises that might help people to overcome depression.

Just because the advice to be thrifty comes to us from self-help books and not Ben Franklin, that does not mean that we should disparage it. It suggests that the intellectual marketplace is rigged to discredit certain ideas... thus those ideas, often good ones, often find themselves expressed in venues that are supposedly less respectable.

David Foster said...

George B..."Following written directions is not difficult because the writers are stupid, it's difficult because such things are notoriously difficult to write."

The quality of writing of technical manuals varies widely. In some cases, the writers ARE incompetent, and/or they (and their management) just don't care very much.

I have in mind the manual for a Philips international-format DVD player I recently purchased.

OTOH, if you look at some of the manuals produced by the US military during WWII, it's obvious that a great deal of thought and effort went into coherently presenting complex subjects.

Too many companies think that the marketing task ends when the product is purchased.

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