Do Self-Help Books Help?

Sales are booming, but readers are not always getting their money's worth
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HAVE YOU EVER purchased a self-help book? If so, you are like most Americans. In 2003 alone, publishers put out more than 3,500 new self-help titles, ringing up more than $650 million in sales. Many of the buyers cannot or will not seek psychotherapy, but surveys by John C. Norcross of the University of Scranton and others indicate that 80 percent or more of psychotherapists recommend such books to their patients, too. How well are self-help books fulfilling their purpose?

Authors of self-help books often make grandiose promises that invite a skeptical look. Consider the title of a best-seller by Anthony Robbins: Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! (Free Press, 1992). The dust jacket describes Robbins as an “acknowledged expert in the psychology of change.” Yet he lacks any formal mental health credentials. Elsewhere, Robbins has made eyebrow-raising claims, such as that he can cure any psychological problem in a session, make someone fall in love with you in five minutes and even revive brain-dead individuals. (If he can do this with enough people, he might sell even more books.)

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