Thursday, August 25, 2011

Self-Help and Skepticism

Well, at least one guy got rich.
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill is one of the most popular self-help books of all time. It's also extremely well-reviewed on Amazon. My dad practically begged me to read it, and I thought, how bad could it be? So I did.

...Or rather, I got up to chapter 5. I can only handle so much bullshit.

Hill is a compelling writer, and he used plenty of interesting examples and anecdotes to supplement his points. But to illustrate what I'm talking about, let me give a particularly egregious example of the nonsense I encountered:
"The emotions of faith, love, and sex are the most powerful of all the major positive emotions. When the three are blended, they have the effect of "coloring" the vibration of thought in a way that it instantly reaches the subconscious mind, where it is changed into its spiritual equivalent, the only form that induces a response from the Infinite Intelligence." (p. 51)
What does it mean to color the vibration of thought? How, precisely, does the Infinite Intelligence respond to this unholy amalgam of raw feeling? It's as if Hill tried to cram as many meaningless buzzwords as he could into a single short paragraph.

But let's leave that aside. Hill's larger objective is to help us make money, and we can easily forgive a few lapses into gibberish if he can accomplish that. Here is his magical formula for success:
  1. Think of the specific sum of money you want.
  2. Think of what you will give in exchange for this money.
  3. Think of a date by which you intend to have this money.
  4. Come up with a plan to get it and begin to carry it out immediately.
  5. Write down steps 1–4.
  6. Read the statement from step 5 twice a day, and at the same time "see and feel and believe yourself already in possession of the money."
The poorly-kept secret of
The Secret: it doesn't work.
The first five steps seem pretty sensible. It's the sixth one that encapsulates much of the book's premise, and many of its flaws. Hill seems to wholeheartedly endorse a rudimentary version of what's now called the Law of Attraction—the idea that if you think of something hard enough, want something badly enough, the universe will give it to you. (Nowadays its most prominent proponent is Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret.) He repeatedly insists that we can "transmute our thoughts into their physical equivalent." At first I thought he was just being poetic, but by the ninth or tenth rendition any poetry had long since worn away.

On several occasions Hill tells his readers that if they follow his program, the accumulation of wealth will be easy:
  • "When you begin to think and grow rich, you will observe that riches begin with a state of mind, with definiteness of purpose, with little or no hard work." (p. 13)
  • "You can put [the book's principles] to work for your own enduring benefit. You will find it easy, not hard, to do." (p. 16)
  • "The steps call for no 'hard labor.' They call for no great amount of education." (p. 28)
This is a lie, and one made all the more obvious by the fact that Hill contradicts himself multiple times. Step two of his master plan explicitly calls for the sacrifice that he so flatly denies on page 28, and some of his anecdotes involve people putting forth extraordinary effort before reaching their goals.

Speaking of anecdotes, this is another major flaw in Hill's reasoning: his dataset is hopelessly skewed. He claims that his plan will work for everyone, yet in support of this he offers his interviews with successful people: Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and a host of other famous icons. Even if we assume that they followed Hill's methods to the letter, this is not sufficient evidence. For every such triumph, there could be ten thousand failures, and neither Hill nor the reader would be any the wiser.

The implications of one of Hill's examples could even be seen as dangerous. He tells the story of Edwin C. Barnes, who devoted himself utterly to the goal of becoming a business associate of Thomas Edison. He left absolutely everything behind to do so:
"He left himself no possible way of retreat. He had to win or perish! That is all there is to the Barnes story of success!" (p. 24)
Yes, Barnes was successful. But how easily Hill forgets the "or perish" he slipped in. What happens if others try to emulate this strategy? Maybe they won't be so lucky. To praise such a reckless course of action based on one man's triumph, without even attempting to find the overall success rate, is utterly irresponsible.

While I may have missed a few gems in the rough, a quick look through the rest of the book suggests that it doesn't get any better. There are plenty more references to the "Infinite Intelligence"—I assume that Hill thought it lent an air of authority and mystique, as opposed to the preachiness of "God"—and the book's eleventh chapter covers "The Mystery of Sex Transmutation." I kid you not.

And the author is
aptly named, to boot. 
After tossing Think and Grow Rich aside, I began reading another self-help book entitled 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute. Like Rich, 59 Seconds boldly claims to be able to easily and markedly improve a person's life.

Unlike Rich, 59 Seconds is based on 263 scientific papers.

Within the first few pages, 59 Seconds tears Rich to shreds. As it turns out, the visualizations that Hill suggests in his sixth step may potentially be harmful for acheiving one's goals. Experiments found that visualizing positive outcomes can have "the unfortunate side effect of leaving you unprepared for the difficulties that crop up on the rocky road to success, thus increasing your chances of faltering at the first hurdle rather than persisting in the face of failure." The book goes on to criticize the general carelessness of self-help books, and to explain how to foster motivation and creativity, relieve stress, and actually be happy (it doesn't require money, as Hill so often suggests)—all with the help of real science.

To summarize: some of Rich is nonsensical, some is counterproductive, and the useful parts—in a nutshell, resourcefulness and determination are vital to success—aren't particularly insightful. Hill's thinly disguised appeals to God only highlight his disregard for rigor and empirical study. I hope that this book isn't representative of the self-help genre as a whole, but I strongly suspect that it is. If only people read more books like 59 Seconds, they might start to really improve themselves.

Update: Luke Muehlhauser has a short but useful list of scientific self-help books.

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