9 Reasons Why Self-help Books Are The Scam Of The Century

Most self-help books are a scam. Here's how you are being misled

How many times have you been told that "you can do anything you set your mind to" by an overly enthusiastic speaker or writer? If you've read as many self-help books as I have, then you've most likely heard these encouraging words repeated too many times to count.

With a catchy phrase like that, one would hope that it is at least somewhat true. As uplifting and encouraging as it sounds, unfortunately, it is a manipulative lie. Now, before you write me off as a critical pessimist, hear me out.

If you're looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? - George Carlin

Before I continue, I must preface that this article does not apply to all self-help books. There exists a handful of self-help books that actually provide legitimately useful and helpful information. But these exceptions are very rare, so this article applies to nearly all self-help books.

Why Self-Help Books Are a Scam
Source: Unsplash

I've read 20+ self-help books and listened to hundreds of hours of motivational speeches. Here are 9 reasons I've found that self-help books are the scam of the century.

1. Self-help is marketed to vulnerable and desperate people

People who are depressed, lonely, desperate, and hopeless are the very people who will jump on a potential lifeline like starved dogs on a fresh steak. This is the exact audience that the authors of self-help books prey on. 

Not only is there lots of money to be made in selling books to this desperate demographic (see reason #9), but they are also the most vulnerable and susceptible people to believe whatever information is presented to them, so long as it makes them feel good and lifts their spirits for a minute.

As someone who went through a serious depression in his early college years, self-help books and motivational talks quickly became my faux lifeline in that darkness. When you feel hopeless, hearing some encouraging words thrown at you with enthusiasm is practically euphoric.

Were all those books really helpful to my suffering and desperation? They seemed like they worked at the moment because I felt better for a passing minute, but in the long run, they did nothing for me or my mental/financial health.

2. Most self-help content has zero scientific basis

"You can do anything you set your mind to", "see it in your mind and it will become a reality." I've heard a million different iterations of motivational statements like these in all the self-help books and motivational seminars I've invested my time into in the past. They sound nice, but are they even credible statements?

The short answer, scientifically speaking, is no. There is no credibility in mantras like these. In order for a hypothesis to be scientifically credible, it needs to first be scientifically reliable.

Scientific reliability is the process of repeatedly achieving a similar output given the same input. Knowing this, it is entirely impossible to measure the outcome or the process of "manifesting success" in even a single individual. Why? Because there are thousands of other variables to consider when a person achieves success.

So, unless you are willing you bank your whole future purely on superstition and the vague "spirituality" of "manifesting your greatness or success", then go right ahead. For the rest of us, a scientific approach to life is far more viable and realistic.

3. Self-help books are riddled with logical fallacies

The Appeal to authority fallacy is defined as an authoritative figure's word being taken as credible evidence for their argument simply because they are an authority figure.

Self-help books are riddled with "success stories" and how the author went from rags to riches through whatever method the given book is about. This is a common logical fallacy that many people fall for. Just because a person has gone from poor to successful, does not automatically make their words reliable and applicable to anybody. 

The anecdotal fallacy is defined as a point argued with anecdotal evidence as to the basis of the argument. This can include personal stories and experiences being over-generalized which are then incorrectly made applicable to everyone.

This logical fallacy is the entire basis of most self-help books. They begin by telling you their success story and how they accomplished greatness. Then they explain how you can achieve the same results by following the same guidelines. The problem is, anecdotal evidence can never be overgeneralized and reliable to everyone. A hypothesis requires repeated testing in order to be considered reliable.  

Survivorship bias is defined as focusing on successful individuals without considering all those that failed or didn't quite make it.

Self-help books seldom mention the multitudes of people who try their absolute hardest in life, but still, they die without a penny to their name. This demographic is exponentially greater than those who become successful. By setting your focus only on people who gained riches, you are getting an unrealistic sample of the population and being deceived into believing that it is a realistic outcome.  

The appeal to emotion fallacy is defined as manipulating emotions as a tactic to strengthen the potency and efficacy of an argument put forth.

If self-help books are great at one thing, it's motivating people. They do this by saying emotionally charged things that will get your emotions ramped up and cause you to be more likely to agree with or follow the arguments that the book is making. When people are ruled by their emotions, they often have a hard time recognizing logical fallacies or errors that may be present in the arguments put forth; self-help books are guilty of this.

This fallacy is further emphasized by dropping as many f-bombs as possible. There's a psychological reason why so many self-help books have the f-word on the cover. Harsh language stirs up emotions and gets people's attention to what is being said. Whether the arguments are valid or not, strong language garners lots of attention. 

The False analogy fallacy states that because two otherwise unrelated subjects have one thing in common, they must also be related in other ways.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard self-help gurus use sharks, lions or wolves as reference points for how you should behave as a person. While it sounds powerful and uplifting to be called a "lone wolf", "alpha", "lion" or another predator in the wild, it makes no sense to compare humans to these wild animals.

What wild animals do is not a useful reference point for how we should behave. Yes, lions are the king of the jungle, and they hunt their prey down. But you know what else lions do? They kill the cubs of other tribes and forcefully mate with females or else they will kill them if they refuse. Don't fall for the false analogy fallacy, it is nothing more than an emotion-driven manipulation tactic. 

The wishful thinking bias is defined as thinking or wishing for something so much that it becomes a reality. 

Almost all self-help books fall for the trap of wishful thinking. It doesn't matter how much you think about success, it won't come to you if you don't have lots of luck, know the right people, and put in unhealthy amounts of work into achieving it. We all wish that wishful thinking was helpful, but the reality is that it is a delusion that most fall for. Sooner or later reality will come and smack you in the face.

4. Self-help books contradict each other all the time

After reading the 20+ self-help books that I did in my early 20's, I started to notice contradictions in philosophies. One author would tell me to take a nihilistic approach to life by saying that everything is meaningless, so you shouldn't let failure bother you. Another author would tell me that "failure is not an option!" and so on.

The contradictions are so frequent, that self-help authors even contradict themselves sometimes! I did some research on Reddit and found this, comprehensive list of proverbs, idioms, and cliches that are contradictions to others.

proverbs, idioms and cliches
image source: reddit

With so many different angles to approach self-help from, it will inevitably become nauseating when you no longer know which road to follow because so many people have different opinions and perspectives on how to achieve success.

5. The self-help industry is a money-making behemoth

The self-help industry was worth $9.9 billion as of 2019 and has only grown from there. It is no wonder that the market is flooded with so many books in this genre. Authors and proclaimed "gurus" are often just trying to make a quick buck.

With profits that explosive, people are willing to say or tell people just about anything to get in on the financial gains. The irony here is that most of these people are selling books or programs telling you how to become rich and successful while they themselves are gaining riches solely on the profits made from the book in your hands.

While there are a few legitimate self-help books that aren't written purely for the money, it is no doubt a motivating factor for the majority of self-help authors. Keep this in mind the next time you are deciding to buy a self-help book.

6. Most self-help books can be summarized in a page or two

Let's face it, self-help books are more bloated than an American after leaving a buffet. Most of the information contained in any self-help book can easily be summarized into a single page.

The authors have to add in tons of filler via personal stories, analogies, etc. in order to make a specific page count so they can sell more copies. In reality, their whole philosophy can be refined into one page.

For this reason, self-help books are mostly a waste of your time. Instead of reading through these 200+ page books of filler, just read a blogger's summary article on that book and you will have all the information you need.

7. Self-help is egotistical and self-indulgent

Have you ever seen those Instagram models and influencers who are so full of themselves that they are disgusted by anyone who isn't as successful, beautiful, ripped, or motivated as they are?

Most of these glorified narcissists are products of the self-help industry. These are the people who are constantly posting motivational quotes from self-help books. Why? Because self-help encourages and empowers them to become self-centered and narcissistic.

Unless you think narcissism is attractive and healthy, then think twice about the self-help books you are reading. They might be poisoning your mind into thinking like the Instagram influencers! 

8. Self-help books spread harmful lies

Self-help is infamous for telling people harmful things because it motivates them. I've heard the following statements uttered countless times in different forms:

"you don't need anyone but yourself." 

"you have the power to save yourself."

"if your friends don't make you more successful, get rid of them."

Think logically about statements like these. Do they really seem healthy to you? Sometimes you just need help from others, and that's ok. Friends aren't only there to boost your bank account. These are harmful statements to make. You are a human being, needing other people is part of your nature. We are social beings.

If you follow statements like these as your philosophy, you're likely to end up miserable and lonely. This is how I ended up in my early 20s as a result of these damaging ideas.

I abandoned all my friends because they "didn't help me become more successful" and I also refused help from anyone because I thought that getting help was a sign of weakness and for losers. This all made me extremely depressed, cold, and all alone with nobody to turn to.

No matter what these books tell you, success mostly comes down to luck, being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people. You can tell yourself all these lies but without the perfect circumstances, you will be spinning your wheels and harming yourself and others. Get your head out of the clouds before it's too late.

9. Self-help books are addictive and rarely effective

Self-help books are a never-ending addictive disease. It seemed like the more self-help content I consumed, the more I wanted of it. But this inevitably leads you into a downward spiral where nothing gets done and you become addicted to the ideas rather than taking any action.

Reading a book doesn't help anyone if you don't actually take action and do something. Put down the self-help books and get to work if you want to change your life. Don't let other people rule your life with their fancy words. Just... go out there and live!

I'm a mental health advocate, a poet, and an avid writer. I love to read, watch movies, and explore the outdoors!

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