Home of Dr. Christine B. Whelan

Get Off Your High Horse: Self-Help Isn’t For Dummies

In the weeks since the tragedies at the James Ray self-help retreat in Sedona, Arizona, I’ve written pieces for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post documenting the social psychology of the self-improvement industry. It’s criminal how a motivational leader so misled people seeking personal transformation.

But when readers comment on my pieces, many seem to suggest that those who seek self-improvement are stupid, disorganized or at the end of their rope in life. Indeed, this is the conventional wisdom: That people who seek out self-help books have problems. That self-help readers are the kinds of people who watch infomercials at 3 a.m. while eating a supersized bag of Doritos. That self-help readers are unemployed, in their underwear, drooling on themselves. And because they are so pathetic, they make stupid choices like following James Ray.

Thing is, that’s not true. Self-help is about self-control, and the people who are best at personal control tend to be the affluent, educated and proactive types. And the best of self-help—the virtue- and value-based self-help literature going back more than 150 years, not the cult-like mind-control of James Ray—is geared toward just those Type-A go-getters.

As I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the self-help industry, I found that self-help books are practical advice guides for self-control. Personal change is hard—and it takes a lot of work. Sometimes it’s about controlling personal behavior, while other times it’s about controlling your social life, workplace or romantic situation, but “succeeding” at self-help means attaining fulfillment through self-control.

The people who seek self-control are the ones who value it. And researchers find that self-control is a learned skill that increases with each previous success. But here’s the kicker: Already having self-control is a large factor in gaining more of it.

So who tends to buy self-help books and attend self-help seminars? Those with enough self-control and success to value it—and want even more. Here’s why:

Self-Efficacy: There’s a difference between feeling good about yourself (self-esteem) and feeling proud of successful changes you’ve made in your life (self-efficacy). People who believe they can change are more likely to be able to actually do so, and they will also be happier people, researchers find. And unless you think your goals can be achieved, what’s the point in trying? Self-help readers have a high sense of self-efficacy.

Demographics: Middle-aged, educated, affluent people have the self-efficacy, the social support system, and also the resources to change their behavior. Midlife is a time where people are most in control of various spheres of their life – family, career, financial – so they are free to seek control in other aspects of their lives. (For more on this, see O’Donoghue and Rabin’s contribution on “Self-Awareness and Self-Control” in Time and Decision: Economic and Psychological Perspectives on Intertemporal Choice)

But education and affluence are crucial to self-control: Those who are in an extremely powerless status are more likely to be unhappy and feel directed by forces outside their control. Inversely, people who are equipped with a sense of power and self-efficacy are less likely to feel overwhelmed, even in situations of high demand.

Indeed, studies repeatedly find that children from poorer homes do worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes, perhaps because of a less predictable environment among the less well-off, where one thinks in the short term because the long term is too up-in-the-air.

Either you got it, or you don’t: And if that class statement isn’t depressing enough, one of the most frustrating elements of self-control research is that people who demonstrate self-control skills are more likely to be self-controlled in the future. Either you have self-control or you don’t: First, self-controlled behavior builds on previous patterns of behavior, and second, those who have self-control are more likely to value it and seek to increase their abilities. Just as an inability to control one’s life can lead to anxiety and depression, so too does a belief in one’s ability to master events foster an optimistic outlook on the future.

This isn’t to say that self-control can’t be learned, but simply that by the time one reaches adulthood, some people have more and some people have less.  Self-help readers tend to be self-controlled people—who want more of it. Commitment to self-control requires cognitive and economic resources, and those who already have some of these resources are more likely to continue with a future commitment–be it through a purchase of a self-help book, joining a group or another level of commitment strategy.

So next time you knock self-help readers as silly or beneath you, think again. If you’re so self-controlled and successful, maybe you might consider some quality self-improvement, too.


November 7, 2009 - Posted by | Self-Help | , , , , , , ,


  1. Hi Christine,

    I agree with much of what you have said about the self-help industry. I too have observed that many people who pursue self-help do tend to be educated people with a good deal of self-efficacy and that they are interested in achieving even more self-control.

    However, I think that there are aspects of current Western culture that undermine and even sabotage the quest for self-control and self-efficacy. One of these trends is the addiction to a fast pace, a quick fix, an “I want it all now” philosophy. A few years ago I filmed the Dalai Lama as part of a TV documentary I produced. In one of the sessions with him, a woman asked him how long it takes to become enlightened. He replied by describing a trend he called “McMeditation”–the desire for “enlightenment” that doesn’t involve the long work and discipline required for the meditative path, in other words we want the McDonald’s version of enlightenment–a “burger” cooked up in less than five minutes. He was critical of this mindset and he pondered why Westerners always seem to want everything all at once.

    I think he had a good point–so many “self-helpers” have fallen into an addiction to speed (pace, not the drug!), and thus they may be more vulnerable to falling into the clutches of unscrupulous self-help “gurus” like James Ray and his ilk who promise that improvement can happen instantly if the seeker goes to the weekend seminar, the five-day retreat, or the 30-day program, etc. In my own field of journalism and publishing, I’m seeing very questionable programs offering people the promise that they can write a bestselling book in 14 days! Any intelligent publisher or author knows that an excellent book takes a lot longer than 14 days to create and publish it, yet would-be authors buy into the “quick write” book, because they want to see their name on a book’s cover but they don’t want to do the real work that would result in a good book.

    In my opinion, it is not only the economically disadvantaged who have trouble delaying gratification. Increasingly, we’re seeing the same focus on instant gratification among many of the educated and affluent. This makes people less discerning regarding the type of “self-help” they are choosing, with the result that charlatans and snake-oil salespeople can thrive much more easily now than they could have even a couple of decades ago.

    I am also seeing many people who despite having successful careers and good relationships nevertheless feel that their lives have gone out of control and that they can’t keep up, brought on by the same seduction of speed and instant gratification. So while the desire for self-control and self-efficacy is as strong as ever among the demographic you identify, the willingness to undertake the actual discipline of taking the time required to achieve mastery is much compromised by the instant gratification culture we now live in.

    I think Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, demonstrated a thought-provoking insight when he expressed the idea that achieving mastery in anything requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. This, I think, is the current Achilles heel of the self-help industry. People don’t want to take the time; they want some guru to help them short-circuit the process and jump the queue to success.

    Comment by Sharon | November 9, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks, Sharon, for your thoughtful note. And I totally agree–personal improvement takes time, discipline and dedication… not our usual strong suits!

      Comment by cbwhelan | November 14, 2009 | Reply

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  3. Wow, finally someone speaks the truth. I’ve worked for two very well known men in the self-help industry with over ten years of experience and can tell you that the people who attend these events are not stupid, nor are they broke and desperate. As a matter of fact, they are some of the most motivated and successful people I know. Many come to seminar after seminar spending tens of thousands of dollars in travel, let alone products and coaching.

    Although most participants are far from crazy, they often exhibit classic signs of transference. Transference is usually displayed as an attraction towards a therapist, but in this case, we are talking about any person the participants see as their mentor. This behavior leaves the participant in a vulnerable state in which they are highly suggestive. They see this seemingly successful person through delusional glasses and often create for themselves an extreme dependence on them; placing them in a god-like or guru position.

    Some highly trained speakers, like Tony Robbins, are well aware of this problem and are constantly doing their utmost to help participants focus on themselves to turn it around. Others, like Mr. Ray, are not as highly trained, nor are their “volunteer” staff. I attended Mr. Ray’s event in San Diego just weeks before the accident and I could see the difference. He was playing with fire and saw himself, not his participants, as being the one who “holds they key.” His narcissism was evident to a veteran like me, but not to his unfortunate victims.

    People have to show personal responsibility. If you have to go to the bathroom or you are hungry, get up and leave the seminar. If there’s a fine, pay it! You are responsible for taking care of you. I never allow anyone to stop me from leaving the room when I am taking care of my personal needs. However, it is incredibly difficult for anyone who is not trained to spot dangerous behavior. This is especially true when the majority of the staff working for these guys is displaying the same kind of transference. They idolize these guys and spend their own time and money to staff events simply because they feel they are a “part of the team.” It’s a psychologically dangerous position in the first place.

    I differ on the McMeditations. Less educated participants look for instant gratification. Those who are successful in their own right know that nothing worth having comes easy. Most are ready and willing to work for it. I also believe that there are some really fantastic people out there on the book and seminar circuit who are genuinely interested in helping others. I have dozens of favorites whose events I regularly attend. Hay House has some exceptional authors in this arena, too. Snake oil or the real McCoy? You need to do your due diligence and check these folks out for yourself.

    Comment by Michelle | February 26, 2010 | Reply

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