The self-improvement industry—with a projected 2022 market value of $13.2 billion—clearly has massive appeal and a wide readership. Self-help is consistently represented in the top five nonfiction genres sold on Amazon each year, and the latest self-help bestseller often maintains its position at the top of the charts for months at a time.  

The genre’s popularity is not difficult to understand; when people feel that most aspects of their lives are beyond their control, they respond positively and predictably to any simple, intuitive message that tells them they have more control over their lives than they had originally thought. These messages are often highly exaggerated, simplified, and context-independent claims that, while containing some truth, are mostly misleading and sometimes even dangerous, as Jesse Singal describes in his latest book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.

As Singal point outs, while not all books labeled as “self-help” are pseudoscientific, the genre, overall, does not have a great track record. The prototypical example of this is the 2006 book written by Rhonda Byrne titled The Secret, which has sold over 30 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 50 languages. Essentially, the book tells us, based on the dubious “law of attraction,” that our positive and negative thoughts have the power to actualize positive and negative events in our lives. This pseudoscientific idea—which tells us that thoughts control actual physical events—sold millions of copies because it presents a story that gives people a comforting sense of control in an otherwise chaotic world. 

Of course, there is some truth in the claim that a positive disposition can bring positive results, as the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy does have some empirical support. Those who are confident, optimistic, and self-assured tend to create positive opportunities for themselves and are generally more highly regarded and better treated by others, while those that are angry, depressed, or pessimistic often bring about their own negative experiences.

But this is precisely the danger with fad psychology: it presents ideas that are at least partially correct, but then exaggerates those claims to reach the largest audience possible—an audience that is less interested in scientific rigor and critical analysis and more interested in gaining a greater sense of self-control or in implementing a quick fix to a complex social problem. That’s how a reasonable idea like “positive thoughts can lead to better outcomes for certain people in certain situations” can turn into the more exaggerated claim that “positive thoughts will magically cure 100 percent of everyone’s problems.” 

This is how “thought leaders” and academics can take flimsy evidence, package it into simple, intuitive ideas that promise a quick fix for complicated problems, and then can get politicians, CEOs, and government bureaucrats to adopt expensive and essentially worthless programs that ultimately produce little evidence for their effectiveness. 

Signal presents several examples of this, demonstrating how the “self-esteem craze” of the 1980s failed to reduce crime and cure various other social ills; how improving one’s posture through “power posing” does not automatically lead to career advancement; how “grit” is not a better predictor of academic success than more traditional measures; how the implicit association test for racial bias does not measure what its proponents think it does; how social priming studies often fail to replicate; and how the interventions of positive psychology do not necessarily make people happier, and certainly do not prevent PTSD in military personnel, as was claimed by its advocates based on almost no empirical evidence.

Nevertheless, millions of dollars and countless resources were dedicated to social programs based on these half-baked ideas, all with negligible results. In most cases, leaders implemented these programs based on nothing more than “gut feelings”—what Signal refers to as “unskilled intuition”—without the necessary due diligence or input from experts. 

In presenting the various case studies, Signal digs deep into the science and statistics, equipping readers with the critical thinking skills necessary to identify shoddy scientific claims. Signal teaches the reader the difference between correlation and causation and how to spot inadequate sample sizes, statistical manipulation, the use of vague terminology, the overextension of research beyond its original area, replication problems, and the context-dependent nature of all psychological research (i.e., what applies to a group of college students in a controlled laboratory setting may not translate outside of the classroom in the far messier real world).

Signal persuasively shows that, at best, these half-baked ideas of fad psychology are simply a waste of money, resources, and time, and at worst, they prevent the implementation of more effective structural reforms that could actually work to improve our social problems (which is the main message of the book). As Signal writes:

“Sure, you can try to train a female business student to be more confident seeming [through power-posing], or try to train a hiring manager to be less implicitly biased, but there’s good reason to believe you’ll have more success changing the former’s business school so that overconfidence isn’t unduly rewarded in the first place, and the latter’s workplace so that implicit bias doesn’t even have a chance to hijack decision-making when there’s hiring to be done. These approaches deserve more attention than they get. The problem, again, is that they aren’t quite as eye-catching as interventions that promise to reform individuals”

Fad psychology, by diverting attention away from structural solutions, is far more socially dangerous than is commonly recognized. For example, if we become obsessed with teaching female business students to act more stereotypically male to get ahead—thus maintaining the status quo and simply trying to work around it with individual behavioral reform—then we ignore the underlying problem altogether, which is the prioritization of overconfidence and aggression in academia and the workplace while undervaluing more considered and rational approaches to problem solving. 

It’s important at this point to note that Signal is not suggesting that all psychological and behavioral science is harmful or useless. Signal presents several areas of psychological research that have impressive empirical support, including cognitive behavioral therapy, the idea of fixed versus growth mindsets, and several established interventions of behavioral economics. But the overall point of the book applies to these areas as well: even within the more credible research areas, individual behavioral reform still has its limits, and often only provides temporary and inadequate fixes to larger social problems requiring more extensive policy reform. And if this applies even to the credible areas of psychology, it applies doubly so to the questionable claims of the latest self-help bestseller. 

In fairness to the self-help industry—which probably gets more criticism than it should—one could argue that the problem is with the institutional overextension of self-help ideas and not necessarily with the ideas themselves. Since the nature of self-help is to provide individual recommendations, and further, since psychological interventions are always context-specific, one would not expect to find any single intervention to be empirically effective across the board. So if someone claims that any particular self-help book has positively influenced their lives, what sense would it make to dismiss this claim as meaningless simply because it hasn’t been shown, statistically, to work for everyone? Sure, this puts self-help more in the category of practical philosophy than psychology, but this in itself doesn’t make self-help any less effective or meaningful at the personal (if not social) level.

This is a fair point, but Signal would probably respond by saying that the psychologists and scientists spreading self-help ideas are not exactly going out of their way to prevent this institutional overextension. The proponents of these ideas often make exaggerated claims that inevitably lead to costly and ineffective social interventions. And there is a very specific reason for why this is the case, as summarized nicely by the social psychologist Carol Tavris. During an interview with Signal, Tavris said:

“Once you have committed yourself to a theory—and this is true of any of us—it becomes hard to accept criticisms of that theory, let alone evidence that you might be wrong about it. Scientists are not immune to this inclination, even though the whole nature of the scientific enterprise is to put your beliefs to the test—Is this what’s going on here?—and see if the evidence supports it or not. But if you have also taken your theory into the public forum, you are now getting thousands upon thousands of dollars to educate people in companies and the government about your test, your measure, or your hugely popular idea, you now have a vested interest, financially, emotionally, and psychologically, in its being right. ‘Maybe I went too far? Maybe I ignored the parts that didn’t fit? Maybe this idea sounded appealing but has a few problems I didn’t anticipate?’ That, in terms of research and science, is the greatest danger of this TED-ification phenomenon: the impulse to oversimplify and cut around the edges.”

And so the incentives are all aligned for psychologists to oversell their ideas. Signal is hopeful, however, that things will change, and that not only will consumers of psychological research become more sophisticated (which this book will help with), but also that researchers and journalists will become more conscientious in their reporting of research as the field of psychology reforms itself in the face of the replication crisis. But while we’d all like to think Signal is right in this regard, if history is any indication, the market for simple, quick fixes will always exist. 

After reading The Quick Fix, check out these additional titles on skepticism, critical thinking, and questionable research practices to further hone your statistical literacy and ability to evaluate scientific claims:

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