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The Pros and Cons of Self-Help Books

  • “Codependent No More”
  • “How to Survive the Loss of a Love”
  • “You Can Heal Your Life”
  • “Never Be Tired Again!”
  • “Don’t Panic
  • “Getting Control”
  • “How to Quit Drinking Without AA”
  • “Change Your Mind, Change Your Life”

About 2,000 new titles a year move on and off bookstore shelves — books that promise to help you stop grieving, to take away your pain, and to bring you hope if you feel hopeless. Are these books really helpful or are they only hype?

Clinical psychologist Joseph C. Kobos, who chairs the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Board of Professional Affairs, says, if a particular book has made the top 10 lists, it’s probably got some substance.” Kobos notes that M. Scott Peck’s book, “The Road Less Traveled,” has been on the best-seller list for 10 years. “I think people must be getting some value out of it to keep it there.”

The APA has no guidelines for the production of self-help books or on how to use them with patients, Kobos says. The association’s ethical standards urge psychologists who produce materials for the public to “present the material fairly and accurately, avoiding misrepresentation through sensationalism, exaggeration or superficiality. ”

Responsible Marketing?

But some say that psychologists largely have failed to develop and market their self-help books responsibly, says Gerald M. Rosen, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Washington. “What I’m against is psychologists making exaggerated and untested claims,” he says.

Rosen, himself the author of “Don’t Be Afraid,” a self-help book on reducing fear, is the first to say that the promotional blurb on the jacket of his book is “exaggerated.” It reads: “In as little as six to eight weeks, without the expense of professional counseling, and in the privacy of your own home, you can learn to master those situations that now make you nervous or afraid.” Rosen complains it doesn’t mention that research findings “suggest that only 50 percent of people succeed at self-administered treatment.”

It’s difficult to test self-help approaches because they are hard to define. Does minimal contact with a therapist, such as weekly phone calls, take the “self’ out of “self-administered?” Does it matter that self-administered materials often are used to treat such limited problems as addictive behaviors? How often do self-help therapies that don’t work get written about?

For some self-help areas anyway, the outcome appears to be the same as those of treatments conducted by a therapist, according to “Psychological Science”. Another study found that most self-help consumers are satisfied with the results they receive from their reading. But for every study that appears to support the effectiveness of self-administered treatment, there’s another that denies it.

Books for Transitions

Self-help books that guide you through a life transition, such as pregnancy or divorce, may be particularly helpful, says Alan B. Siegel, Ph.D

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“Transition books provide a kind of map of developmental transition,” he says. “Transitions have somewhat expectable stages, and there are different emotional reactions and developmental tasks associated with them. And they frequently are not known to people in general, and they may not be known to the therapist either.”

Siegel, author of the book, “Dreams that Can Change your Life: Navigating Life’s Passages through Turning Point Dreams” (Berkley Books, 1992), says transition books can help the therapist help you identify issues that wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

Self-help books may in fact be helpful, but don’t expect them to work magic. Books also may be helpful in combination with therapy. One approach may be to think of them as homework to be discussed with your therapist. Ask your therapist for suggestions of what books are best for you.

The Pros and Cons of Self-Help Books

Ben Martin, Psy.D.

Ben Martin, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He also writes psychoeducational articles about mental disorders and mental illness.

APA Reference
Martin, B. (2020). The Pros and Cons of Self-Help Books. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.