Are Self-Help Books Helpful?: An Addendum About A Really Cool Study

In May, I posted a blog entry exploring the usefulness of self-help books. One of my concerns about self-help books is that they're rarely evaluated for whether people actually benefit from them. There often remains a lingering question: if someone pulls a particular self-help guide off the shelf of their local bookstore and conscientiously works through it, what improvements, if any, is someone likely to find?

. The only incentive to his studies was a free book. None of the people who participated had any contact with Dr. Forsyth or his lab. They simply completed online assessments at specific times.

In the first study, people who reported problems with fear and anxiety were randomly assigned to receive his book either immediately or after 12-weeks. Half the people took the free book and disappeared. However, those who used his book over 12 weeks showed remarkable improvements in anxiety, worry, fear, phobias, and posttraumatic stress disorder compared to those who were not given the book during that time period. People even showed dramatic improvements in depression, which wasn't directly covered in the book. In addition, people who used the book showed increases in mindfulness, greater compassion, and improved quality of life. One really impressive part is that nearly half these individuals were involved in individual therapy, many took psychiatric medication, and the vast majority had been in therapy previously. These improvements were maintained 3 and 6-months later. And those who received the book after 12 weeks started to catch up with the people who received it earlier.

Next Dr. Forsyth compared his book with another well-respected self-help book, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety by William J. Knaus. Volunteers were randomly given one book or the other. The good news is that people benefitted from either book. This provides additional evidence that individuals can benefit from self-help books. However, people did even better using the Mindfulness workbook than the Cognitive Behavioral workbook. The study isn't quite finished yet, as they're still looking at people 3 and 6-months later, but the results look really impressive so far.

What really impresses me about this study is Dr. Forsyth's willingness to put his own book to the test. After all, he might have spent all that time and money to find out that his book wasn't very effective, or that it was not as effective as the other book. As the Mindfulness workbook had already been published, this was a risky move. Additionally, Dr. Forsyth conducted the study as naturalistically as possible. For example, people weren't instructed on how to use they book-they simply got the book and were on their own. Lastly, Dr. Forsyth could have screened out people in therapy or people taking anxiety medications, which would have stacked the deck in his favor. Instead, he left them in and found they still benefitted, even with the other help and resources.

I really wish more people would put their books to the test like this. Using money out of his own pocket, Dr. Forsyth risked invalidating his own book. That shows a real commitment to science. I would love to see more tests like this of self-help books.

  • Cathy

    I liked your article. My untrained thoughts were that I was not surprised that the depression decreased since when one digs in and starts working any problem in life, they don't feel hopeless. Right? I think so. Also, compassion increases, usually, when it seems like someone has taken an interest in you even if it is in supplying you with a book to read. Plus, reading the book on their own showed that they were serious about getting help - they wanted it. Sometimes I think that therapy is more like talking to a paid for hire friend and being with yourself and accountable to yourself is really a stronger commitment. I think where the self-help books fail, well, not actually the books but where the person using the book fails is when they intellectualize the material - like learning it, not applying it and this most often happens when the material is forced on them, I think. I have not read psyhological books but do learn a lot of craft/gardening/etc. by using reference books and applying what I have learned - motivation is the key.

  • elizabeth @ Self Help Books

    Self-help that urges the reader to take a thorough, painful inventory of themselves is rare but the most helpful. Sure, in that inventory you also acknowledge the positive, but it's important to be rigorously honest with oneself about the negative, too.