Posted March 9, 2013 by Selfhelpable in Articles

Main Criticisms of the Self-Help Industry: Self-improvement required

self-help industry billboard
self-help industry billboard

Self-Improvement is big business

Self-improvement refers to self-guided development, financial, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical. Spurred by the popularity of self improvement books, all manner of D.I.Y., make-yourself-better products are being developed and touted on the internet. Invitations to self improvement courses and seminars. If I see any more free self improvement articles regurgitating common sense, I’m going to lose my lunch. You don’t need an accreditation to create self-help products, and the vast majority draw solely on widely available information.  

The industry is now thought to be worth around 11-billion US dollars a year in the United States.

While the idea of “self-help” dates back to the 1800s, it has been only in the last twenty years where we’ve seen self-help publishing take off.  The industry is now thought to be worth around 11-billion US dollars a year in the United States. Despite this treasure trove, it is not formally regulated.

The popularity of self-help resources is legitimately troubling to the professional care industry. There is a perception that the public turn to self-help tools instead of consulting a professional. There are some conditions which are not arguably appropriate for self-help. The decision seems to be made on perceived severity of a condition and not the nature of said condition.

Read: When is it appropriate to get self-help?

The worry here is that the self-help industry, seeking ever larger reach and profit, creates products which attempt to treat illness and pathology – something which most agree is best left to professionals.

The blurred lines of self-help

There is often a grey area between what is appropriate for self-help and what intervention must legally come from a trained health professional  The lack of standard qualifications, particularly in the area of psychotherapy further complicates matters internationally. The same qualifications may be deemed suitable in one country, but not in the next.

Similarly, not all scientific research is born equal. Conflicting studies have created a lot of confusion. The lack of a trade body has also left the self-help industry without guidance as to the robustness and external validity of scientific research.  (I.e. how transportable or transferable a particular empirical finding is, and what the implications are for their technique).

Let’s be honest here, one shouldn’t be selling self-help interventions without reasonable and relevant qualifications. Then again, by definition this is the “self-help” industry. Is this idea relevant to products like hypnosis tracks? One questions when the concept of “self-help” truly applies at all? Hypnotherapists are poorly regulated in general, but anyone can sell online guided meditation tracks using all the tools of the hypnotherapist.  Even your cat be a qualified hypnotherapist.

The underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence

- Kathryn Schulz

On closer inspection the self-help industry is not a profession but a bone fide professional services industry. It is regulated by nothing more than a little common law and the perils of the free market.

self help industry Main Criticisms of the Self Help Industry: Self improvement requiredThe above sets the scene for much criticism of the industry. Without an industry body to reply, the industry has largely been silent in the face of criticism. This silence implies the arguments are legitimate. So here, each is addressed in turn.

There is no real need for the self-help industry

The argument has been made that the self-help industry is self-perpetuating. That is, supply creates the demand. It is only popular because so much of the shelf is devoted to it, which people read and become dependent on, and go back for me, so more self-help material is produced to feed the demand. This is true, and is therefore also true of the majority of industries as well.

This, to my mind at least, is separate from the fact that the self-help industry plays such an important role. The self-help industry offers much support to over stretched health services around the world. It does so cheaply and without borders. Often access to self-help resources is often the only option available to some and in cases like hypnosis to quit smoking and as a sleep aid – outperforms traditional, supervised approaches. Much of what is termed self-help is merely the teaching of life skills. Access to self-help products is empowering, and in many cases leverages the investment society makes in formal healthcare, career management and physical fitness programmes.

80% of the market is repeat customers because their self-improvement purchase didn’t work

The argument here being is that if the programme worked, you’re then healed and won’t need to buy anything else to help you. This is a straw man argument, and one which in fairness seems to supports the real effectiveness of specific modes of self-help. The case in point is subliminal mp3s, which have been popular despite temporarily falling out of favour for a number of decades with mainstream research. 

The proof is in the pudding.

Quite plainly, if you find self-help tools which work for you, you’ll want to make the most of it. You’ll want to keep abreast in the latest self-help has to offer. The proof is in the pudding – it is a great testimony to the self-help industry that it is supported solely by repeat clients and is growing so rapidly. How many other industries can boast the same repeat usage (with the ironic exception of the legal and illegal drug trades)?

The Self-Help Placebo Effect

That is, you think it’s working, and so it does. If you don’t think it’s working – then it won’t. The improvement is not due to the programme you’ve purchased at all. The self-help industry is said to sell sugar pills.

The placebo effect is certainly the majority of what drives the improvement – there is no denying this. But given perspective, this is true of any form of intervention including Western medicines. The ones which have been studied in depth are anti-depression pills and painkillers – and the placebo effect is often the only effect which can be found. In this regard, it would seem the ‘those in glass houses…’ metaphor applies here. Until medical science can show that to degree of universal confidence, similar chemical interventions are not placebo then the burden of proof does not fall on self-help provider’s tools (which working effectively at a fraction of the cost.) There are of course studies which show anti-depressants working above the placebo effect, only a handful for painkillers, but yes, quite a few of popular self-help interventions like hypnosis and subliminal mp3s thanks for the advent of MRI (with some exceptions of course for things like homeopathy). Real Subliminal and Subliminal Today’s websites cover this in greater detail – and really worth checking out.

best self help websites Main Criticisms of the Self Help Industry: Self improvement required

Online Retail prevents Free Market Regulation

If something doesn’t work, people don’t pay for it, and the laws of the free market see to it that what doesn’t work fails quite quickly. If what you’re selling doesn’t work, then in the long term it won’t sell (especially not to the 80% repeat customers who support the self-help industry!) and you’ll either go out of business or will start selling something else. However, a very valid argument has been made here by the detractors of self-help: The very low running cost of online self-help mean that ineffective treatments remain available. This is a worrying, as products which don’t work, once created, need not be removed off the online shelf but can exist in perpetuity.

This is the most valid criticism of the self-help industry, however with changes to Google website rankings; mean that self-help providers are all scrapping for a piece of the $11-billion market. They’re investing in new tools and then investing a considerable amount of investment to help their sites rank on the search engines, on an on-going basis. Unless a self-help website is making a serious contribution, and Google can see visitors are actively engaged with their brand both within their search behaviour and across social media, they will not rank. In essence, the online free market is regulated very ruthlessly by the search engines.

No red tape, no form filling. If people like you, you’ll make money, you stay, it they don’t you’re on a quick highway to page number 1000 and the vestiges of self-help history.

The fierce competition for rankings means that the online self-help market is very free and liquid.

The importance of self-help reviews

The above all raise critical questions about the true nature of the self-help industry, some good, some quite ugly.

Selfhelpable.com  carries out independent reviews and we believe this is absolutely critical to the health of industry.

Support the debate and join us in helping to stamp out fake and unqualified testimonials.