Self-help books: concepts and prejudices

Controversies about self-help books have been circulating for years. For some, these books are empty, futile and worthless. For others, they are useful books that help improve people’s habits and emotional state. In any case, the number of people who disown this type of literature is large. The general concept of self-help books is to convey analysis and advice in simple, direct language and without scientific depth.

Many critics accuse such books of being frivolous and simplistic. For some, it is a kind of psychology without science, general advice and suggestions without basis and without theory, which treat people as if they were the same and that the same recipes can apply to everyone. Of course, there are superficial and naive books, as if the human being were an electric switch through which, with a simple touch, light or darkness is made.

Part of the criticism claims that the authors think that one sentence is enough and the reader can become someone else and change beliefs and habits. The first problem in evaluating self-help literature is where is the dividing line that separates the self-help book from the science book. A conclusion and advice can be presented without needing to detail the cognitive process of the scientific method followed.

The general concept of self-help books is to convey analysis and advice in simple, direct language and without scientific depth.

Prejudice, on the other hand, is in the attitude of those who do not like something without having studied and without having tried it. In addition to harming intellectual development, prejudice is stupid, for the rejection of something unexamined and unexperienced is childish. At certain moments in my life, I caught myself in attitudes of prejudice, which I only realized much later.

When I was in high school, I came across a book that I rejected because I didn’t like the title. I rejected it without reading. But whenever I went to bookstores, there was that book, chasing me. One day, much more mature, tired of the boring talk of election time on the radio, I went to the bookstore to look for an audio book to listen to in the car on my daily commute. The only one I found was that book. I bought it and, after eight hours of listening, the book positively surprised me.

Once, the famous lawyer and professor René Dotti was invited to give a lecture about his brilliant career to law students at the university where I was dean. I was invited to introduce Dr. René and stay at the table with him. At one point, a student asked him how he explained his success, and Dotti replied: “At the beginning of my career, I read a book that changed my life, my way of seeing the world and some habits”.

Suspense was made! I thought to myself: “But what book can be this decisive?” I imagined it to be the Bible or some great biography, like that of Jesus, Freud, Immanuel Kant or Rui Barbosa. What nothing! Dotti said: “This book, How to make friends and influence peopleby Dale Carnegie, published in 1936 and today in more than 50 editions, changed my life.”

I had listened to the audio book and had already purchased the printed version, and I was surprised by the ease with which Dotti confessed the importance of this book, considered and had as simple self-help. So I asked for the floor and told the story of my prejudice, which led me to reject the book for no logical reason, just because it had a simplistic title.

The fact is that there are bad and weak self-help books, and there are others that are great and help us to improve. The same is true of science books. In these two years of pandemic, distortions have proliferated in the debate about science and non-science. The respected magazine The Lancet is one of the most important publications in the medical field. Once, a director of The Lancet declared that 50% of supposedly scientific medical articles are false.

There are bad and weak self-help books, and there are others that are great and help us improve.

The magazine Exam on July 5, 2018 published an article saying the following: “Most of the articles published, including in serious journals, is weak, says John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford who specializes in the study of studies. The researcher showed in a 2005 article why most published studies are false.” If this is true, then unconditional love for everything you call science is just as stupid as a rejection of everything you call self-help.

Just as the self-help label is not enough to condemn a book or article, the science label is not enough to validate a book or article. Modern society loves labels, the good and the bad. So, the best attitude is to open your mind, study, evaluate and conclude. Prejudice and stubbornness are two negative habits against which we must fight. We must not be deceived by the label of “science” nor simply reject the label of “self-help”.

Content edited by: Marcio Antonio Campos

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