Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge



Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life

Some have suggested that the Less Wrong community could improve readers' instrumental rationality more effectively if it first caught up with the scientific literature on productivity and self-help, and then enabled readers to deliberately practice self-help skills and apply what they've learned in real life.

I think that's a good idea. My contribution today is a quick overview of scientific self-help: what professionals call "the psychology of adjustment." First I'll review the state of the industry and the scientific literature, and then I'll briefly summarize the scientific data available on three topics in self-help: study methods, productivity, and happiness.

The industry and the literature

As you probably know, much of the self-help industry is a sham, ripe for parody. Most self-help books are written to sell, not to help. Pop psychology may be more myth than fact. As Christopher Buckley (1999) writes, "The more people read [self-help books], the more they think they need them... [it's] more like an addiction than an alliance."

Where can you turn for reliable, empirically-based self-help advice? A few leading therapeutic psychologists (e.g., Albert Ellis, Arnold Lazarus, Martin Seligman) have written self-help books based on decades of research, but even these works tend to give recommendations that are still debated, because they aren't yet part of settled science.

Lifelong self-help researcher Clayton Tucker-Ladd wrote and updated Psychological Self-Help (pdf) over several decades. It's a summary of what scientists do and don't know about self-help methods (as of about 2003), but it's also more than 2,000 pages long, and much of it surveys scientific opinion rather than experimental results, because on many subjects there aren't any experimental results yet. The book is associated with an internet community of people sharing what does and doesn't work for them.

More immediately useful is Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds. Wiseman is an experimental psychologist and paranormal investigator who gathered together what little self-help research is part of settled science, and put it into a short, fun, and useful Malcolm Gladwell-ish book. The next best popular-level general self-help book is perhaps Martin Seligman's What You Can Change and What You Can't.

Two large books rate hundreds of popular self-help books according to what professional psychologists think of them, and offer advice on how to choose self-help books. Unfortunately, this may not mean much because even professional psychologists very often have opinions that depart from the empirical data, as documented extensively by Scott Lilienfeld and others in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and Navigating the Mindfield. These two books are helpful in assessing what is and isn't known according to empirical research (rather than according to expert opinion). Lilienfeld also edits the useful journal Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, and has compiled a list of harmful psychological treatments. Also see Nathan and Gorman's A Guide to Treatments That Work, Roth & Fonagy's What Works for Whom?, and, more generally, Stanovich's How to Think Straight about Psychology.

Many self-help books are written as "one size fits all," but of course this is rarely appropriate in psychology, and this leads to reader disappointment (Norem & Chang, 2000). But psychologists have tested the effectiveness of reading particular problem-focused self-help books ("bibliotherapy").1 For example, it appears that reading David Burns' Feeling Good can be as effective for treating depression as individual or group therapy. Results vary from book to book.

There are at least four university textbooks that teach basic scientific self-help. The first is Weiten, Dunn, and Hammer's Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century. It's expensive, but you can preview it here. Others are are Santrock's Human Adjustment, Duffy et al.'s Psychology for Living, and Nevid & Rathus' Psychology and the Challenges of Life.

If you read only one book of self-help in your life, I recommend Weiten, Dunn, and Hammer's Psychology Applied to Modern Life.2 Unfortunately, like Tucker-Ladd's Psychological Self-Help, many sections of the book are an overview of scientific opinion rather than experimental result, because so few experimental studies on the subject have been done!

In private correspondance with me, Weiten remarked:

You are looking for substance in what is ultimately a black hole of empirical research ...Basically, almost everything written on the topic emphasizes the complete lack of evidence.

Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I suspect that empirical tests are nonexistent because the authors of self-help and time-management titles are not at all confident that the results would be favorable. Hence, they have no incentive to pursue such research because it is likely to undermine their sales and their ability to write their next book. Another issue is that many of the authors who crank out these titles have little or no background in research. In a less cynical vein, another issue is that this research would come with all the formidable complexities of the research evaluating the effectiveness of different approaches to therapy. Efficacy trials for therapies are extremely difficult to conduct in a clean fashion and because of these complexities require big bucks in the way of grants.

Other leading researchers in the psychology of adjustment expressed much the same opinion of the field when I contacted them.


A sampling of scientific self-help advice

Still, perhaps scientific psychology can offer some useful self-help advice. I'll focus on two areas of particular interest to the Less Wrong community - studying and productivity - and on one area of general interest: happiness.


Study methods

Organize for clarity the information you want to learn, for example in an outline (Einstein & McDaniel 2004; Tigner 1999; McDaniel et al. 1996). Cramming doesn't work (Wong 2006). Set up a schedule for studying (Allgood et al. 2000). Test yourself on the material (Karpicke & Roediger 2003; Roediger & Karpicke 2006a; Roediger & Karpicke 2006b; Agarwal et al. 2008; Butler & Roediger 2008), and do so repeatedly, with 24 hours or more between study sessions (Rohrer & Taylor 2006; Seabrook et al 2005; Cepeda et al. 2006; Rohrer et al. 2005; Karpicke & Roediger 2007). Basically: use Anki.

To retain studied information more effectively, try acrostics (Hermann et al. 2002), the link method (Iaccino 1996; Worthen 1997); and the method of loci (Massen & Vaterrodt-Plunnecke 2006; Moe & De Beni 2004; Moe & De Beni 2005).



Unfortunately, there have been fewer experimental studies on effective productivity and time management methods than there have been on effective study methods. For an overview of scientific opinion on productivity, I recommend pages 121-126 of Psychology Applied to Modern Life. According to those pages, common advice from professionals includes:

  1. Doing the right tasks is more important than doing your tasks efficiently. In fact, too much concern for efficiency is a leading cause of procrastination. Say "no" more often, and use your time for tasks that really matter.
  2. Delegate responsibility as often as possible. Throw away unimportant tasks and items.
  3. Keep a record of your time use. (Quantified Self can help.)
  4. Write down your goals. Break them down into smaller goals, and break these into manageable tasks. Schedule these tasks into your calendar.
  5. Process notes and emails only once. Tackle one task at a time, and group similar tasks together.
  6. Make use of your downtime (plane rides, bus rides, doctor's office waitings). These days, many of your tasks can be completed on your smartphone.

Why the dearth of experimental research on productivity? A leading researcher on the topic, Piers Steel, explained to me in personal communication:

Fields tend to progress from description to experimentation, and the procrastination field is just starting to move towards that direction. There really isn’t very much directly done on procrastination, but there is more for the broader field of self-regulation... it should transfer as the fundamentals are the same. For example, I would bet everything I own that goal setting works, as there [are] about [a thousand studies] on it in the motivational field (just not specifically on procrastination). On the other hand, we are building a behavioral lab so we can test many of these techniques head to head, something that sorely needs to be done.

Steel's book on the subject is The Procrastination Equation, which I highly recommend.



There is an abundance of research on factors that correlate with subjective well-being (individuals' own assessments of their happiness and life satisfaction).

Factors that don't correlate much with happiness include: age,3 gender,4 parenthood,5 intelligence,6 physical attractiveness,7 and money8 (as long as you're above the poverty line). Factors that correlate moderately with happiness include: health,9 social activity,10 and religiosity.11 Factors that correlate strongly with happiness include: genetics,12 love and relationship satisfaction,13 and work satisfaction.14

For many of these factors, a causal link to happiness has also been demonstrated with some confidence, but that story is too complicated to tell in this short article.



Many compassionate professionals have modeled their careers after George Miller's (1969) call to "give psychology away" to the masses as a means of promoting human welfare. As a result, hundreds of experimental studies have been done to test which self-help methods work, and which do not. We humans can use this knowledge to achieve our goals.

But much work remains to be done. Many features of human psychology and behavior are not well-understood, and many self-help methods recommended by popular and academic authors have not yet been experimentally tested. If you are considering psychology research as a career path, and you want to (1) improve human welfare, (2) get research funding, (3) explore an under-developed area of research, and (4) have the chance to write a best-selling self-help book once you've done some of your research, then please consider a career of experimentally testing different self-help methods. Humanity will thank you for it.


Next post: How to Beat Procrastination




1 Read a nice overview of the literature in Bergsma, "Do Self-Help Books Help?" (2008).

2 I recommend the 10th edition, which has large improvements over the 9th edition, including 4500 new citations.

3 Age and happiness are unrelated (Lykken 1999), age accounting for less than 1% of the variation in people's happiness (Inglehart 1990; Myers & Diener 1997).

4 Despite being treated for depressive disorders twice as often as men (Nolen-Hoeksema 2002), women report just as high levels of well-being as men do (Myers 1992).

5 Apparently, the joys and stresses of parenthood balance each other out, as people with and without children are equally happy (Argyle 2001).

6 Both IQ and educational attainment appear to be unrelated to happiness (Diener et al. 2009; Ross & Van Willigen 1997).

7 Good-looking people enjoy huge advantages, but do not report greater happiness than others (Diener et al. 1995).

8 The correlation between income and happiness is surprisingly weak (Diener & Seligman 2004; Diener et al. 1993; Johnson & Krueger 2006). One problem may be that higher income contributes to greater materialism, which impedes happiness (Frey & Stutzer 2002; Kasser et al. 2004; Solberg et al. 2002; Kasser 2002; Van Boven 2005; Nickerson et al. 2003; Kahneman et al. 2006).

9 Those with disabling health conditions are happier than you might think (Myers 1992; Riis et al. 2005; Argyle 1999).

10 Those who are satisfied with their social life are moderately more happy than others (Diener & Seligman 2004; Myers 1999; Diener & Seligman 2002).

11 Religiosity correlates with happiness (Abdel-Kahlek 2005; Myers 2008), though it may be religious attendance and not religious belief that matters (Chida et al. 2009).

12 Past happiness is the best predictor of future happiness (Lucas & Diener 2008). Happiness is surprisingly unmoved by external factors (Lykken & Tellegen 1996), because the genetics accounts for about 50% of the variance in happiness (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005; Stubbe et al. 2005).

13 Married people are happier than those who are single or divorced (Myers & Diener 1995; Diener et al. 2000), and marital satisfaction predicts happiness (Proulx et al. 2007).

14 Unemployment makes people very unhappy (Argyle 2001), and job satisfaction is strongly correlated with happiness (Judge & Klinger 2008; Warr 1999).



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