Naive Self-Help: 10 Popular But False Self-Help Myths

little red riding hood and a wolf popping out from a book to represent naive self-help

Naive self-help refers to self-help authors and products that distort reality, provide sub-optimal advice, and potentially even harm the learner.

Here at The Power Moves we know something about self-help.
We’ve gone through thousands of self-help products, and we summarize and review hundreds of them.
We’ve seen great products, and… Not so great ones.

But… How to recognize what’s good, from what’s not?

In this article, you will learn how to recognize and avoid naive self-help (so that you can be as effective as possible with your self-development efforts).

little red riding hood on the left side of a book and a wold on the right side. a hand covers the wolf to represent the unwillingness to look at the dark side of human nature

Naive self-help is unwilling or unable to look at and deal with the dark side of human nature



Shocking as it may sound, naive self-help accounts for the majority of the self-help industry.

We can categorize naive self-help into these broad categories:

  1. Pollyannish Naive, based on a model of a good or neutral world, and failing to properly account for the “darker” side of reality and human nature
    1. Aspirational, based on “how things ought to be”, rather than how they are (aspirational, rather than veridical)
  2. Simplistic, providing unidimensional, black-and-white, or partial representations of reality. Simplistic models inherently distort a world that is complex, variegated, and full of exceptions
  3. Easy, with magic bullet solutions, catch-all approaches, and iron “laws”. Law abiders underperform fluid and chameleonic players because in a complex and fast-changing world, context matters
  4. Motivational-only, cheering and encouraging, but glossing over the risks, and falling short on the strategies and steps to final achievement -the how
    1. Self-esteem propping, reminding people how great they are, but forgetting the areas for improvement
  5. Sub-optimal, ineffective, or self-harming. Ranging from “helpful, but not the most effective”, to plain self-harming.

Pollyannish naivete is what we originally referred to as “naive self-help” and what originally inaugurated the concept.
In that sense, pollyannish gullibility is the most stereotypical trait of naive self-help.

However, it would be reductive to limit naive self-help to gullibility and lack of sophistication.
Because albeit cynical, complex, or gloomy may not be associated with the adjective “naive”, they can be equally distortive of reality (keep on reading).
That’s why we chose to go a level higher and adopt a larger definition.

Definition of Naive Self-Help

The high-level definition of naive self-help is:

Naive self-help is any self-help resource that distorts reality and promotes mental representations, attitudes, mindsets, strategies, and techniques that are sub-optimal or counterproducitve to personal development and goal achievement

Types of Naive Self-Help

Among the main categories of naive self-help we can recognize:

1. Utopian World

Utopian self-help comes in many shapes and forms:

  • Wishes: How the author wishes things were
  • Oughts & Shoulds: How things should be
  • Unrealistic Coulds: how things could become

“Utopian” includes unrealistic pies in the sky, of course.
But any self-help addressing the unlikely and exceptional as if it were likely, common, or likely to be achieved is also utopian.

So, for example, we include as utopian:

  • Manuals for politics-free workplaces without mentioning that such a place is an abstraction to aspire towards, rather than a realistic goal
  • Happily ever after relationship guides, without mentioning the risks of personality mismatches, partner selection, break-ups, divorce, and cheating

Example: “Leaders Eat Last”

Wouldn’t it be nice if…

  1. Leaders were all selfless and fair
  2. Selflessness helped you get to the top
  3. Selflessness and effectiveness were one and the same

But of course, none of the 3 are true.
And especially not for getting or staying to the top.

don quixote emerging from a book
Don Quixote, a knight-hero of his own utopian world

We actually have two examples of very successful but utopian self-help books:

1. Leaders Eat Last: the utopian leader

Maybe leaders should eat last in Simon Sinek’s ideals.

And who knows, maybe in the utopian parallel universe, they all do.

But in this world here, very few do.
And not only that’s not how it goes, it’s also not how you become a leader, and not even necessarily how it should be.
Think about it: if great leaders add great value, it’s also fair they don’t eat dead last. After all, whether you care about “fairness” or achieving goals, you surely don’t want your biggest contributor to starve.

leaders eat last book cover fixed with a more realistic "leaders eat more rewritte on it"

Many leaders want to be leaders in the first place to eat more. And whenever they want. In some cases, it’s even fair

2. Radical Candor: the utopian workplace…

… Where you “bring your whole self to work”, give straight feedback because your boss has no ego, and where execs “personally care of employees”.

Radical Candor is a fantastic book, we loved it and highly recommend it for developing great workplaces and teams.

But still… It’s an ideal to aspire towards, barely even reachable in reality, and very unlike 99.9% of workplaces.
A book like that should come with readers’ beware stickers:

naive self-help warning label meme

1.2. Naive Spinning: Accurata Data, Naive Interpretations

Naive spinning starts with accurate intuition or data.

However, instead of extending that good start into accurate but not as rosy analyses and recommendations, the author gets cold feet.
So rather than pushing all the way out, he U-turns back into the safe waters of utopia with politically correct and “nicer sounding” interpretations.

Sometimes, it takes some incredible spins to deny reality in favor of the rosier and more comfortable interpretations.
But many still buy it…

Example: Emotional Intelligence

Social and emotional intelligence are foundational to life effectiveness, success, and contentedness.

In that sense, Daniel Goleman did a lot of good to the world when he popularized those two concepts.

However, Goleman never mentions that emotional intelligence and empathy can be used -and often are used- for effective but selfish ends, including to better manipulate others –Machiavellian intelligence-.
That’s naive spinning.

With the utopian spin, Goleman probably sold a lot more, made more money, and enjoyed a “cleaner” reputation.

Bradberry in his Emotional Intelligence 2.0 went into spin-monstering overdrive when in his own survey found that CEOs and execs had lower emotional intelligence than middle managers.
So, what did he do?
To maintain the utopian charade, he said that execs and CEOs “had to do better” -yeah, sure, so they can go back to mid-management trap maybe?-.

For more on this topic, see:

The Myth of Emotional Intelligence: Machiavellis At The Top

2. Naive Open-Mindedness (Befallen Brains)

Naive open-mindedness includes a host of values that turn naive when taken to an extreme:

  • Naive tolerance
  • Naive relativism
    • Cultural relativism
  • Diversity for diversity’s sake
    • Naive “inclusion” as a value
    • Cultural “sensitivity”
  • Political correctness
    • Sanctity of ideas & beliefs (rather than people)
  • Cultural determinism

Many of these values are often associated with progressive thoughts and leftist-leaning politics.

But we’ll get into biases later, so back to naive self-help.
Open-mindedness is a trait that obeys the “law of optimum balance“.

The law of balance says that a trait that is good, effective, or beneficial at a certain doses -the interval of optimum balance- becomes bad, ineffective, or harmful at extreme levels of either total lack, or oversupply.

The law of optimum balance for the trait “open-mindedness”

Open-mindedness follows this law, and while sensible levels of open-mindedness are great, as this saying perfectly encapsulates, it turns naive at extreme levels:

Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out

Smart, Educated, And… Stupid

Surprisingly, it’s educated people who most often fall victim to naive open-mindedness.

Students learn about the dangers of black-and-white thinking, over-generalizations, and jumping to conclusions.
And they understand the importance of tolerance, and looking at individuals and exceptions.

However, they fail the law of balance when they don’t understand that too much of a good thing is a bad thing, take it too far (self-defeating imbalance), and become naive.

When I hear otherwise smart people acting naively open-minded I think of this scene from The Godfather:

Sonny: What you go to college to get stupid?

The Charlie and Ben Podcast is also a good example of two smart guys with an amazing podcast, who still sometimes fall for naive open-mindedness.

2.2. Naive Relativism

Relativism is the belief that everything is relative.

Relativism is a true and valid concept of course, but naive relativism takes it to an extreme and becomes a “suspension of good judgment”.

In the name of relativism, subjectivity and “cultural sensitivity” the native relativist relinquishes the ability to judge, condemn, and demand changes.
And, like a good naive sucker, accepts a vast array of (not-so-acceptable) behavior.

You can probably already see how that’s both naive, and low-power.

First, there are plenty of foundations that are common to all human beings.
And second, independent of relativity, it’s still your right to judge and expect conformity to sensible standards of fair and respectful behavior.

2.3. Charlatans Welcome: The “Omnis Learning” Fallacy

Naive open-mindedness also applies to attitudes towards learning.

For example, to believe that anyone can teach you something, often encapsulated in the mantra of “learning from anyone and anything”, entails the suspension of critical judgment towards BS and charlatans -or, simply, towards clueless folks-.
Learning from anyone is a great mindset, but with important caveats, and it also obeys the “law of optimum balance“.

This meme well explains why such an approach turns naive when taken to an extreme:

In an industry where BS is common and conmen abound, “being open to everyone” inherently means ingesting tons of BS. Discriminating in self-help makes sense

“Learning from anyone” only works for “reasonable learners” who are already empowered.
And a “reasonable learner” must possess:

  • Critical thinking (for arguments) to assess what makes sense and what smells of BS
  • Power awareness (for people): to spot manipulators, charlatans, and value-takers

Also useful:

  • Expertise in the field/discipline. Beginners are particularly at risk when adopting an “omnis learning” strategy

Example: Tom Bilyeu spreads charlatans

Self-help guru Tom Bilyeu is an awesome guy, and I used to follow him.

Tom pursues an extreme form of growth mindset that can turn disempowering.
He says that every time he approaches new information, he “opens himself up to be changed”.

And while that does have some benefits, it also meant that Tom Bilyeu opened himself up -and gave an audience- to a host of charlatans (and nutrition charlatans).
That’s a failure to exercise critical judgment.
And feeding those charlatans to his own audience is a failure of leadership.

salesman selling snake oil
Opening yourself to be changed by snake oil is a waste of time and money at best, and potentially actively harmful

So one may ask:

So what, can’t you also learn from marketers, conmen, idiots, and charlatans?

Potentially, yes.
But you should prioritize different teachers because the above are far more likely to misguide you, since:

  1. What sells rarely is what’s true and effective, and marketers tell you what sells
  2. Character matters because teachers and learners have diverging interests. What’s best for the charlatan isn’t what’s best for you, and charlatans and conmen have no qualms to sell you crap for their smallest personal gain

This is why it’s generally true that you learn from what the marketers do, rather than from the half-baked self-help they preach and sell.

Also see:

3. Naive Goodness

Naive goodness downplays or forgets people’s darker nature and people’s differing levels of morality.

It includes the beliefs in:

  • Inherent goodness of people
  • Generalized “will to be good” of people
  • Unending ability to change (for the better)

Unsurprisingly, these people make great targets for predators, thieves, and general value takers.

Naive also overlaps with naive open-mindedness.
At its extreme, it justifies and defends what to most sensible persons is unjustifiable. As in: “oh, so what, just because he’s got past convictions for violent behavior, and he abused his ex what’s that supposed mean, that he can’t change and be a great loving boyfriend?”

Of course that convict may be a good person, sometimes. But he’s also proven to be violent and toxic.
And of course, he may want -or say– he wants to change for the better… But how like is it that he will?
Much better for you instead if you take past behavior as red flags and strong indicators of future behavior.

Example: Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance is a great book, but naive at times.

Says the author:

in sharp contrast to our cultural conditioning (<- red flag of cultural determinism, see entry #8.2)
as heirs of Adam and Eve, the Buddhist perspective holds that there is no such thing as a sinful or evil person. When we harm ourselves or others, it is not because we are bad but because we are ignorant.

Now here’s a dose of reality instead:

I bet you that if one of Buddha’s disciplines stole from him or undermined him and his message, he’d have quickly sent him packing -as any effective leader should-.
So while you may want to embrace spiritual enlightenment and Buddhist practices, you also want to avoid that naive bullshit of not calling an asshole an asshole (and treating him as such).

3.2. Naive Acceptance & “Give The Other Cheek”

This type of naive self-help encourages to accept, forgive, and give others more chances.

We actually like “acceptance” here because many people don’t change.
Byt “accepting shitty behavior” is a no-no.
Instead, smart acceptance also means “accepting that someone is an asshole who doesn’t deserve any more chances”.

Killing the bully with kindness may work… In some exceptional cases. But you certainly don’t wanna stick with it if it doesn’t

3.3. The Naive “Good Man Path to Success”

The “good man path to success” postulates that good and honest men with morals and strong ethics win.

And while that may sometimes be true and we’d also love it if it were true, honest obviously does not guarantee success.
And there’s simply no evidence that stronger morals beat, say, “average morals”, or even “below average morals”.
We also have plenty of circumstantial evidence that amoral people sometimes succeed -and succeed big-.

The good man path to success is sometimes based on the unfounded “just world hypothesis” (more on it later).

Brian Tracy

Bel from the TPM community correctly noted that a good example of this naive self-help sub-genre is Brian Tracy.

We agree with bel.
We do like Tracy a lot here, but do not fully agree with his message that honesty and moral rectitude are fundamental to personal success or goal achievement.

4. Naive Motivation (Inspirational VS Strategic)

Motivational self-help can be great for those who need it.

For those who of us who are intrinsically motivated, we don’t benefit as much from it.

But independently of where you stand, motivational resources must go with foundational:

  • Mindsets, beliefs, worldviews
  • Self-esteem / self-acceptance
  • Processes applied over the long run and independent of motivation
  • Skills
  • Strategies to achieve goals, and techniques

Motivational self-help without the foundations is not only hollow but potentially harmful.

Some forms of naive motivations include:

  • Limitless self-help (“you can do anything”), a great mindset, when properly adopted together with realistic assessments of strengths and weaknesses and real probabilities -rather than letting that “anything” dictate your approach-
  • Struggle porn (“the harder you work, the better you are”), where motivation is to be found in the hustling and long hours (while instead you may be better off going for what comes easiest to you)
  • Unlimited inner power (“all that you need is within you”). while most people probably have more resources they imagine, sometimes what you need is outside. Books such as You Can Heal Your Life are potentially dangerous when they discourage readers to seek medication or external help
    • Limitless willpower. Willpower is important, but it’s not unlimited. Tony Robbins says Robin Williams “hadn’t learned to control his emotional states”. Instead, William a degenerative brain illness.

Motivation For Leaders

Motivation is crucial for leaders.

Non-naives also know that leadership motivation can entail lies, smokescreen grandiosity, and sometimes even manipulations in order to get the most out of the team.

But even for leaders, motivation cannot be the sole ingredient of effective leadership.
Says former Harvard professor Richard Rumelt in his book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”:

(…) a leader may justly ask for “one last push,” but the leader’s job is more than that.
The job of the leader is also to create the conditions that will make that push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.

Real-Life Example: “The Magic of Thinking Big” Guy

the magic of thinkig big

Personal story time:

One random guy once approached me in the street.
Cheerful and high energy, he was looking for “people to join his team”. “I seemed like the perfect guy for that”, he said.

Curious as usual, I met him for coffee.

He was working in, you’d never guess, multi-level marketing.
His goal was to hit $100.000 per month selling their snake oil creams, and he was going to achieve it by “hiring” (without pay) and motivating more people under him.

He was HUGE on motivation self-help.
And “The Magic of Thinking Big” reflected in his big goals.

It’s possible he may be able to motivate some guys.
But they’d hardly be winners with real skills and experience to deliver big results -those guys ask for real money, not motivation and cheap talk of unlikely future gains-.

Notice also that there was no real added value in his “plan” besides pushing useless snake oil creams.
And there was no real strategy or plan besides a very ineffective “running around town approaching random strangers”.

For their own good and for the world’s good, I hope that reality hits these people hard sooner, rather than later.

See more below in “toxic self-help”.

4.2. Pollyanna + Naive Motivation: Sinek’s Deadly Combo

The worst naive motivation is great motivation, but based on falsehoods.

Unluckily, it may be the most common and popular form of self-help motivation.

In this example, we have motivation, based on Pollyannaish and utopian worldviews:

Sinek: some of the guys who make it through are skinny and scrawny (…) you will see them shivering out of fear (…) but every single one of them when they’re emotionally exhausted, when they’re physically exhausted, someway, somehow they’re able to dig down deep inside themselves to find the energy to help the person next to them. Service. Giving. Having their back…

It’s a poetic imagery, in a way: at their very lowest, the seemingly weakest guys make it through by finding the last shred of energy… To help others.

In brief, Sinek tells us that the main differentiating trait of those who make it through is selfless giving.
In the meanwhile, one of the most upvoted comments under that same video:

One of the most popular comments under Sinek’s motivational video

Sinek is the perfect motivational speaker, and he mastered that art to perfection.

And that makes it easier for him to spread, ehm…. Bulls*it.

Of course, it’s not that he’s telling the opposite of what’s true.
So for sure there may be some selfless givers and for sure team spirit may be an important trait go be successful in some special op teams.

But is that the key to succeed?
Is it the main differentiator between those who make it and those who don’t?
Are every special ops selfless givers?

And the answers are “no, no, and no”.

While some special operation guys may be very giving and selfless indeed, I doubt that’s the main ingredient to make it through the selection process and that all special ops are selfless givers.
For example, former SEAL Goggins shares in his book that the most elite seal team -not even just individual- were racist (they didn’t want him because Goggins was black).
And we know for certain from Dutton and Andy McNab that at least some British special ops were psychopaths.

When it comes to the traits that actually help you make through the grueling selection, research psychologist Angela Duckworth says that the main differentiator between those who make and those who don’t is grit/conscientiousness, and NOT team spirit or selfless giving.
And when it comes to giving and success, psychologist Adam Grant shows that the selfless givers who give without any strategic forethought tend to be big losers in life, not winners.

Ultimately, it’s simply false that selfless giving is the #1 predictor of making it into elite special forces, and it’s certainly not the #1 predictor of any personal success either.

4.3. Self-Esteem Inflating (“You’re Amazing”)

Some people may benefit from some “self-esteem pumping”.

For example, eternal self-doubters, children of abusive parents, or people who are too harsh with themselves.

However, many more do NOT benefit from self-esteem inflation.
In a world of growing narcissism and rampant entitlement mentality, many need the opposite message.
Something like:

  • Why you need to refocus from “me, me, me” to “what’s in it for them
  • Why you’re not that special – and why that’s OK
  • Your self-esteem doesn’t matter: your actions do -and you can act independently of how you feel

The self-esteem inflating self-help is harmful because it promotes:

  • Fixed mindset: being good, rather than becoming good, including through failures and setbacks
  • Fragile ego that collapses when facing failures and setbacks
  • Entitlement mentality: as in deserving the best in life, without a more effective focus on how to earn it

Example: Marie Forleo Tells You That “You’re Good Enough”

This is what I got when I signed up for Marie Forleo newsletter:

Marie: You are good enough
Me: (thinking) Thanks for the covert power move. Have I ever said I wasn’t? :S

5. Unfounded Self-Help

Unfounded self-help that is scientifically unproven, illogical, or lacking real-world experience (the 3 pillars of knowledge).

This self-help that’s based on nothing more than:

  • Preferences
  • Opinions
  • Ideologies & Philosophies
  • Conjectures
  • Made up claims

Notice that any of the above is totally OK if the author is open about it
However, that’s rarely the case and many authors instead go the opposite direction to make their personal opinions sound proven and more authoritative.

Unfounded self-help is one of the main reasons why self-help as a genre has a bad reputation among many logically-minded and scientifically trained folks.

Some of the most popular offenders when it comes to unfounded theories hail from the “(fake) spirituality / new age / alternative / new thought” genre:

5.2. Positive Thinking

Positive thinking makes sense.

Focusing on the positives of life and learning to adopt more positive, optimistic, and empowering frames is potentially life-changing.

Problem is, not only do many of the thousands of positive-thinking books and gurus add virtually no more value than the 3 lines of text above, but they:

  1. Gloss over the foundations. And positive thinking cannot make up a lack of strategies, skills, and a dispassionate look at reality during which you need to drop positive thinking
  2. Oversell it as panacea of all ills, including more unfounded BS such as “vibing with the universe”, attracting love, manifesting things, changing matter, etc. etc.

Positive Thinking Incantations

“Positive thinking” often involves mantras and “incantations” such as:

  • Every day, in every way I’m getting better and better
  • I’m the best, I’m the best, I’m the best“, recommended by Brian Tracy
  • I will lead, not follow“, a line in one of Tony Robbin’s incantations

None of the authors who recommend incantations has ever presented any evidence.
Could it be because the evidence isn’t that good?

Says psychologist Martin Seligman:

We have found that merely repeating positive statements to yourself does not raise mood or achievement very much, if at all

Authenthic Happiness, Martin Seligman

Seligman speaks about “mood”, let alone real-world results.

The good news is that non-naive and more scientific self-help can teach you proven thinking patterns to make you happier and more effective.
But to do that, you must first avoid the naive and misleading self-help.
See “best positive psychology resources” for that.

5.3. Law of Attraction & “New Age” Spiritualism

The law of attraction is the most popular BS in the self-help industry.

Here’s a who’s who list of law of attraction copycats:

And there doesn’t seem an end in sight, with contemporary guru-charlatans like Joe Dispenza enriching themselves while regurgitating the same old formula with a guise of fake pseudo-science.

The Secret tells readers to live as if you “already possess what you desire”, and to not work towards your goals (lest the universe knows that you don’t believe that you will receive).
Let that sink in for a second: one of the best-selling self-help books in the world advises readers NOT to work towards their goals.

Women are the biggest buyers of this crop of naive self-help books.
And that’s an important reason why, on average, men achieve bigger than women: because men are less likely to believe in this BS, and more likely to work hard and relentlessly towards their goals.

Better Alternative: Pray Like All Depends on God, Act Like All Depends On You

Note here that belief itself is not your enemy.

And it’s not even bad per se.

Whether your belief is in the universe or in God, the belief itself not an issue.

As a matter of fact, a belief in predestined success or in a bigger force that may support you may even be helpful as long as the actions align with your goals.
Meaning, you can believe in any arcane “law”, as long as you don’t sit on the couch but work hard, relentlessly, and effectively towards your goal.
If you do that, then it doesn’t matter what you believe.

Problem is, most people who believe that outside forces control their life (external locus of control) tend to work less hard and be less confident than those who believe they’re in control of their life and their life’s direction (internal locus of control).
Don’t be one of those people, and you can get to keep any spiritual belief you want.

6. Autobiographies (Tools of Self-Promotion)

In an already long article, we’ll keep this brief:

Almost all autobiographies are tools for self-promotion.
At best, they’re embellished, and at worst… You know what.

If you follow the authors’ autobiographical footsteps you’re following what they say, rather than what they did. And the two are rarely the same.

7. Naive Empiricism

Naive empiricism is tougher to spot.

It requires some knowledge of logic, scientific principles, statistics/data analysis, and even some general knowledge often helps.

Let’s explore some of the sub-categories:

7.2. Data Out of Context: The Better Angels of Utopia

Numbers and data are fundamental to a correct understanding of reality.

However, to make good sense of it, you also need logic, experience, and a solid grasp of the overarching context, and general dynamics.
Without those, data alone will lead you straight to naive empiricism.

Take Steven Pinker for example.
In “The Better Angels of Our Nature” Pinker looks at the decreasing number of wars to “prove” that humanity is getting more peaceful -and safer-.
While I’d actually agree with the concept, the hypothesis is not proven by Pinker’s data -which is highly misleading without context-.
The more historically informed Nassim Taleb, from whom I’ve borrowed the term “naive empiricism”, correctly notes that the number of wars proves nothing because wars in the past were small, confined, and had little impact on most people’s lives.
Instead, the world is a lot more peaceful because a single modern war could be catastrophic for everyone. And, if it were to happen, tens of millions may die -making the world necessarily not necessarily safer-.

You can read more on our “three pillar approach” to cognition:

How to Learn: The Three Pillars of Mastery

7.3. Naive Counter-Intuitism (The “Debunking Trap”)

Counter-intuitism is often a power move and a form of social climbing.

It consists of providing naive data or logic to disprove a commonly held belief. The effect is to frame the speaker as smarter for debunking the myth, and the listeners as silly for believing the myth.

Trying too hard to be contrarian also follows similar dynamics.

Example 1: Terrorism VS Murderous Parents

Let’s see an example of naive counter-intuitism in the otherwise great book The Gift of Fear.
The author says:

We will tolerate familiar risks over strange ones.
The hijacking of an American jet in Athens looms larger in our concern than the parent who kills a child, even though one happens rarely, and the other happens daily.

It’s a pop-psychology trope that people overweigh the low odds of publicized risks while downplaying the higher odds of unpublicized ones (ie.: flying VS driving).
And, well… that’s often true.
But not always true (the difference between “often” and “not always” is common for unfounded debunking).

In our example, the author engages in naive counter-intuitism because, first of all, there are far more parents than American jets.
Second, infanticides are rare for adult children.
Third, most adults travel without their parents.
So, for an adult about to travel, it makes more sense to research and consider their destination’s safety records, rather than worrying about their killer mom.

Example 2: Terrorism? Don’t Worry About It…

Steven Pinker also engages in counter-intuitism when he says that terrorism is overblown in its severity, and hasn’t had a major impact on Western civilization.

On the surface, Pinker is being data-driven because he looks at the number of deaths.

But it’s naive empiricism because it fails to look at all terrorism-related costs, which are instead astronomical.
Just think of security screenings, scanner technology, personnel, millions of hours wasted for us all… And you end up with costs that are ubiquitous and, on aggregate, are unprecedented in human history.

Counter-intuitism is how potentially smart people talk stupid, while trying to sound smarter (than others).

7.4. Naive Evolutionary Psychology

It’s popular among some scientists to bash evolutionary psychology as unfounded.

I disagree.
But I see why it happens: evolutionary psychology comes across as unfounded because 90% of the “evolutionary psychology” you read in self-help books is made-up storytelling.

You often encounter naive evolutionary psychology in red pill and dating resources.

7.6. More Naive Empiricism

There are as many forms of naive empiricism as there are failures of critical thinking and understanding scientific principles.

And since it’s a lot of them, we couldn’t possibly list them all.
But to give you an idea, based on some of the biggest offenders:

7.6.2. Naive Results-Based Pragmatism

You can’t argue with results… Or so goes the lie of the naive pragmatist.

And albeit some results are indeed the best tests of certain approaches to goal achivement, you can’t always trust results because of countless confounding factors -including, of course, simple randomness-.
Furthermore, the best comment are masters at spinning or faking results

The non-naive analyst doesn’t just look at results, it looks at context, competitors, previous history, and how those results were achieved.
Naive self-help instead looks only at bottom-line results.

Example: The Talent Code

In The Talent Code Doyle goes to Brazil to learn the “secrets” of the country’s unprecedented success in football.

Doyle says Brazil has won the most world cup and has the most top players, so… It’s got the results to prove Brazilians must be doing something “special”, right?

No, Doyle is victim of naive results-based pragmatism.
At the time of writing, Brazil has 5 world cups and Italy and Germany have 4. But if you divide the world cups tally by population, then Italy has more world cups per inhabitant, which matters far more if you’re looking at the country that produces the best talent.

Doyle then says that Brazilians learn better than anyone else because they play on five-men smaller pitches.
Hopefully by now you can spot the logic fallacy: Doyle had a wrong assumption to begin with, and looking for a nice narrative rather than truth, he started looking for credible-sounding (but ultimately useless) “reasons why”.
Case in point, Doyle ignores that most guys in European countries also play in those same smaller pitches. For his theory be even a valid hypothesis, he should have made sure that Brazilians play significantly more in smaller pitches than any other country.
But of course, he didn’t.

7.6.3. Naive “Success Case Studies” (Inductive Reasoning)

Much of the biographical and autobiographical literature is based on this assumption:

If X person did Y and achieved Z results, you do the same and will achive the same.

Of course, Z doesn’t actually necessarily follow from Y.
One may achieve certain results despite certain behaviors -like Steve Jobs’ short fuse-, and what someone did in a specific context, at a specific time, may not work for you, a different person, in a different period, in different contexts.

A tad better are some books that instead look at larger populations, for example, The Millionaire Next Door or Good to Great.
But even there, few popular books run good analyses and most are more interested in what sells, than in rigor on what works (ie.: Good to Great says that great CEOs are modest and self-effacing, but never mentions that CEOs may have a harder time becoming CEOs in the first place, and even staying there).
And you want to be careful with jumping conclusions because chances are that even an extremely commonly held trait is not a must, and one can be successful despite not doing, or doing the opposite, of what most other people do. Furthermore, one may also make the argument that what makes a millionaire is different than what makes someone even more successful -ie, a billionaire-.

7.6.4. Naive “Science-Backed” (Backed By Single-Studies)

You can take almost any single claim and have it “science-backed” with a small sample and enough tries.

So any tips, advice, technique or approach that is based on individual studies is, often, of little usefulness, useless, or even counterproductive.

7.6.5. Naive Edutainment

There can be such a thing as a good mix of education and entertainment.

But the way I’ve seen it done, most often, it’s low-quality “education” of “fun facts” with so-so entertainment.
Many people still feel good consuming that because they get to feel like they’re working on themselves, learning and improving, while also being midlly entertained.

Example: Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is the author king of naive edutainment.
Vanessa van Edwards isn’t too bad either:

naive edutainment with vanessa van edwards example

The same people who enjoy naive edutainment sometimes also provide a biased sample for more naive empiricism with post-training surveys.
So when those people are asked how useful the training was, they’re not really scoring how more effective they’ve become, but they’re scoring how good they felt.
The trainer then spins that result into a “proof” for effectiveness and quality

7.6.6. Naive Self-Disempowerment

As if “normal” self-disempowerment wasn’t enough, the naive one adds insult to injury :).

Let’s see and correct some popular formats of naive self-disempowerment:

  • Cognitive biases ≠ humans are wholly irrational, or misusing Kahneman’s groundbreaking work as evidence of “how irrational humans are”. Many “biases” instead served or still serve a purpose. Buss explains they are shortcuts that work well for most of our evolutionary problems. So they made -or make- humans more effective, not less
  • “Back when it was better” ≠ today we suck, wearing rose-tinted glasses when “analyzing” the there and foregone, and negatively comparing it to the here and now
    Example: Tribe, an ode to tribal living, conveniently forgets the benefits of advanced civilization
  • Rotten cherry-picking ≠ we’re all bad, focusing and over-generalizing negative traits, events, or tendencies to draw unfounded conclusions about groups, humanity, or the world
    Example: Tolle in The Power of Now tells readers that “of course there is something wrong with you” because you’re part of a murderous species as evidenced by… (insert single events that should prove how bad humans are)
  • Naive comparison ≠ inferior humans: comparing humans with nitpicked animals that may have bigger teeth, claws, or bigger size and to deduce that “humans are weaker / inferior / defenseless”
    Example: Alfred Adler says that humans suffer an inferiority complex for being “an inferior organism”. I lost all my respect for his work after that: can one be any blinder? Humans are responsible for most other animals’ exctintions. Including bigger predators that either extinct or locked into human-built zoos for human entertainment…

8. Biased Self-Help

Biased authors describe not what’s true, but what they prefer.

We’re all biased of course but some are more biased than others.
Among the causes of bias:

  • Ignorance: don’t even realize their own bias
  • Crusade above truth: believe their cause is just, and more important than truth
  • Bitterness: anger and resentment fuel the bias. This self-help also makes its consumers bitter and angry
  • Recruitment: on a crusade to convince and recruit. Often involves demonization of the other party

Whatever the instigating cause, biases heavily distort a large chunk of self-help.
Unluckily, there are also countless ways of being biased and we couldn’t possibly review them all.
But, just as examples, let’s take political biases:

8.2 Self-Serving Biases

For example, to sell more.

Adam Grant shows that strategic givers outperform givers and takers.
But he presents his own finding as “givers” -in general- winning at life.

May seem a detail, but it changes everything.

Why does he do that?

Not sure.
But the human tendency to virtue signaling may explain it.

Or the also very human “think with your wallet” first may explain it.
After all, good-sounding self-help sells more than realistic ones.

Plus, Machiavelli would say, it better handicaps your competition.

8.3. Political Biases – Liberal

Political biases cover a huge array of topics.

Just as an example, let’s take nurture VS nature.

Both nature and culture influence people’s characters and behaviors.

However, instead of recognizing the importance of both, the cultural determinist denies or downplays the role of genes and inborn drives (“tabula rasa” approach).

Academics such as Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, Martin Seligman and more noted that cultural determinism is often associated with feminism and left-wing political ideology.

Example: leftists & most feminists

Says Esther Perel in her book “Mating in Captivity“:

Gender differences and their ensuing taboos and prohibition have long been viewed as categorical imperatives, biologically rooted, and therefore immutable.
Feminism showed that these undisputed truisms and characterizations were in fact social constructions that reinforced a long-standing gender order that obviously favored men.

Sounds like a list of big words to sound erudite while pushing her own (biased) narrative?
That’s exactly what it is.

Of course, cultural determinist bias knows no gender, and plenty of male authors do the same.
For example, Jared Diamond and Viren Swami.
In Attraction Explained, to deny the genders’ biological differences, Swami says that the reason why it’s men who court women is because of the patriarchy while implying it’s the only reason (it’s most certainly not the only reason).

8.4. Political Biases – Conservatives

Innatism is more common with the political right.

And while the cultural determinists underestimate or downplay the role of genes and inborn drives, the innatists underestimate the important role of nurture, culture, subjectivity, and exceptions.

We also find innatist bias in red pill and male-only self-help, in unfounded or poorly understood evolutionary psychology, and sometimes in dating advice for men:

Example: Atomic Attraction

The innatists in dating see women’s tastes as unchangeable, the same everywhere, and with little or no exceptions.

In Atomic Attraction Canwell says:

“women are attracted to strength and masculinity. Anything you can do to enhance your strength and masculinity will make you significantly more attractive to women.”

Albeit that may be a good rule of thumb for many men, it doesn’t apply to men who are already very masculine.
Many indicators of masculinity and “manliness” -like beard and muscularity, for example- follow the law of balance, and above a certain threshold, attraction decreases.
Many men don’t understand this because men have no threshold point when it comes to awarding dominance and respect to men, but women have it for attraction.

Subjectivity here also plays a huge role that the innatists mistakenly deny.
And one must be biased blind not to see the feminine-looking boybands hounded by young women:

a picture of feminine looking men
Contrary to what innatists and some red pill authors state, attraction is also, in part, subjective. And feminine-looking men are attractive to some cohorts of women

Also read:

9. Excesses

A large sub-group of self-help fails the law of balance for being too extreme.

Albeit any genre of self-help can go extreme, we’ll take nutrition as a good example because first, the author himself fell for it.
And second, because at the time of first writing this article, nutrition is chock-full of excesses and charlatans.

And while nutrition is quite simple in itself, the charlatans over-complicated it with unneeded details, fearmongering, and advice based on self-defeating (or at least “not so beneficial compared to the costs) excesses, including:

  • Carnivore diets
  • Vegan diets
  • “Cut all of these foods forever” diets

In socialization, the excesses can take the form of “goody-good” literature or, its opposite, the “overly cynical” one:

9.2. Too Good = Sucker

Naive self-help fails to see that there can be too much of a good trait.
Especially if in the absence of their opposites.

For example:

  • Giving is good, but too much without power intelligence can turn you into a sucker
  • Conscientiousness is good but without a strategy that accounts for your own life plans it can keep you stuck doing what you hate
  • Love is one of the things worth living, but without a basic understanding of dating power dynamics it can enslave you to the most undeserving person

So some traits that are often seen as negative are necessary to counterbalance the “good” ones.
Or, at least, they’re necessary for life effectiveness, goal achievement, and personal success.
And, often, they’re also necessary even for pro-social and win-win relationships.

Also see:

Naive self-help fails to see how important it is to learn about power, manipulation, dark psychology. Or how adopting more selfish, narcissistic, Machiavellian, or even psychopathic traits can be useful and, sometimes, even necessary.

Also see:

On the other hand, the more “naively cynical” self-help fails to warn students there can be too much of those negative traits:

9.3. Too Bad = Lonely Outcast

Extreme cynicism is less common than naive self-help, but it can be equally misleading.

Example: The 48 Laws of Power

The 48 Laws of Power is a great book that we loved and recommend.

Problem is: it focuses only on the darker, manipulative, and power-hungry side of human nature.
And that distorts reality.
If you stop at that level of analysis you lose opportunities because people, at least some and at least in some situations, can also be helpful, loyal, and cooperative.
And you’re less effective even if your goals are amoral and purely selfish.

That overly cynical analysis is particularly misleading for beginners who lack basic social and emotional intelligence.
Blindly following maxims -maxims, not laws– that are all about context, they end up acting too aggressive, or just simply really weird.
Take this question on the “48 Laws of Power” subreddit:

the 48 laws of power is wrong

Naive learner: I have tried to make people into enemies (…) only to have two people want to fight me

9.3. Cults, OCD, Geeks, & Toxic Self-Help

The excess isn’t just in the literature, but in the readers as well.

The Self-Help Geek

The mildest form is probably the self-help geek with undiagnosed OCD.

The self-help geek wastes time not just on the trees, but on the leaves of the tree, and loses sight of the forest -and of a good life worth living-.

In the nutrition example, the geek approach is to spend hours sifting the latest recommendations on supplements while failing to realize that supplements are your last 5% at best.
If the geek focused on the simpler 95% of balanced nutrition instead he could put that extra time into something more productive -or into, well… Enjoying that life that he is instead wasting to “maximize”.

If you ask me, that’s a waste of life.

The most likely victims are some of the best people: the driven, high-conscientiousness, and self-development-minded. Plus, the hack-seekers and OCD-types, the geeks of self-development who never stop looking for the real-life equivalents of the video game “hacks” they used to love.

Tim Ferris is a leading guru of OCD-type, excessive hack-seeking.

The Possessed Self-Help

Then we have the “possessed” type, who thinks that he’s living the self-help lifestyle, while instead self-help is leading him.

Some of these guys should go to therapy but instead end up on the Landmark forum, multilevel marketing scams, or similar (see the “magic of thinking big” guy).

At this level, we’re already at mild toxicity.
And the possessed ones make great targets for the various charlatan gurus.

The Toxic Level

At the extreme, this excessive approach can turn pathological.

Going back to our nutrition example, Orthorexia Nervosa, for example, is the obsession with eating “healthy food”, and it’s a “new” pathology courtesy of the nutrition charlatans.

10. More Naive Self-Help

Some self-help sub-categories are great.
They have loads of solid information, spread across many good resources and products.

But some others are filled to the brim with naive products and guru-charlatans.
Some of them:

Not as bad, but also not great:

Common Fallacies of Naive Self-Help

The following common behavior and approaches also lead to naive self-help:

  • Half-truths not mentioning the “darker” half: describing a phenomenon or dynamic that is indeed true, but that’s reductive or naive without the other half.
    Example: Brene Brown says that “we are here to connect”, which is true. However, that’s only the first step in human nature, next we are wired to seek status and climb hierarchies, as well as to respect high-status people and feel depressed and be far more likely to fall ill if we’re chronically low-status.
  • Personal biases
    • Biases + blind eyeing: analyzing others’ faults while turning a merry blind eye to themselves or their own in-group
      Example: feminists, red pill, political groups
  • Cherry-picking: taking single instances, studies, events, or exceptions, and using it to either justify a larger theory, or to invalidate existing but valid theories or constructs
  • Over-extension: taking something that makes sense in some settings and scenarios, and generalizing it as catch-all theory, approach, or strategy
    Example: Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, an ode to “vulnerability”. Sure, vulnerability is good… Sometimes. But if everyone’s evolved not to be too vulnerable, there’s a reason, and it’s because appearing stronger does have benefits.
  • Focusing on the good-sounding exception without mentioning the norm:
    Example: the “leaders who eat last” of Simon Sinek, or the “humble leaders” of Jim Collins both describe the tiny, tiny minority and forget the 99% that makeup reality. A reality of leaders that are often more selfish and narcissistic -and that those traits most likely help to climb the hierarchy-. Also read “Machiavellians at the top

Why So Many Naives?

So now we may ask:

Why do so many otherwise intelligent authors and readers fall for naive self-help?

There are many reasons, including:

1. Utopias Provide Comfortable Lies That Make Us Feel Better

Utopian self-help is ubiquitous because it aligns with human nature and preferences.

People often seek logical justification for what they prefer at an emotional level.

Pfeffer says that lies require two parties: the liar, and the listener wanting to believe the lie.
So the majority of self-help sounds good because the authors and readers collude to keep alive an utopian lie that makes them feel better about themselves and the world.

Centuries of Blissful Ignorance

It’s telling that it took until 1513 for the first book of realpolitik to emerge in the West, The Prince.
Millennia after humans first started writing.

Even the supposed elites of knowledge, researchers and scientists, fell for the comfortable lie trap for centuries.
Dawkins and Krebs in 1978 first postulated that communication among animals was often deceptive.
Sounds obvious if you think about it, right?
But until then the consensus was that communication served to provide reliable information about the world.

2. Utopias Save Faces With Convenient Excuses

Naive self-help provides justification for failure while also making losers feel morally superior (loser in the sense of “not succeeding” by common standards of success).

The contrast of “what ought to be” and “what isn’t” provides an easy excuse for failures in a “bad” world that isn’t as good as it ought to be.
A world that “isn’t yet ready to accept the value of “good” people like us:, goes the excuse :).

Some examples of convenient lies turned into excuses:

  • “Real” leadership is selfless (that’s why I can’t lead among these selfish crooks)
  • “Great contributors shouldn’t need politics” (that’s why someone who’s above politics like myself gets stuck)
  • “True great women should see what a good guy I am” (I’m a gentleman above power dynamics, it’s women who are stupid and can’t see that)

For pretty much anything that one is not accomplishing, the “bad world, great me” explanation offers an easy way out to not only save face, but to come out of it above everyone else.

3. The Author (Deceptively) Virtue-Signals to Appear “Good”

Finally, there are darker sides to naive self-help.

The first one, is virtue signaling and false advertisement.

Building on Dawkins and Krebs, Miller stated that most messages animals send are not messages about the world, but personal advertisements about themselves.

So the naive self-help author paints a false picture of a utopian world to sub-communicate that he is a good person who’s worthy of that world (and who couldn’t even fathom a darker world).
Paradoxically, deceptive virtue signaling is even more important for successful authors, since painting a darker world while they’re winning in it would sub-communicate that they are playing -and winning- in that game of power.

That’s why most mainstream gurus remain a mile away from any remotely contentious topic.

4. Authors Deploy A Machiavellian Strategy to Handicap The Competition

wolf selling self help

Shall we quote Machiavelli again?

Let’s do it:

A good person is ruined among the many who are not good

Think about that.
When the naive self-help author sways everyone around to believe in a good world -and play accordingly-, it’s a lot easier for him to win (to your detriment).

This is why, in a way, naive self-help is the most Machiavellian form of self-help.

5. Naive Authors Sell Naive Products, to Naive Audiences

Finally, not everyone is out to deceive.

Doing anything really well is difficult.
Including producing great self-help that accurately describes reality, with effective strategies that work in that reality.

So there are many not-so-sophisticated naive authors who are selling to equally naive consumers.

These naive authors operate and spread 3 naive assumptions about the world:

1. Just World Hypothesis: Good Men Win, Bad Men Lose (Not)

In simple terms, the just-world hypothesis assumes that “good people will eventually do well”.

The just world rewards good behavior, honest work, ethical conduct, and effort.
At the same time, not-so-good people tend to fail.

Albeit it may sound simplistic, many people hold this belief.

2. Karma Will Make Things Right (Not)

Karma is the force that props up the just world.

It (eventually) rewards good deeds and people, and (eventually) punishes bad deeds and people.

Belief in karma lulls people into a false sense of security.
In a karma-governed world people don’t need to be careful of cheats, bullies, and takers, because even if they’re screwed over, they’ll eventually be made whole again -and the bully will eventually pay-.

Example: The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

Some extremely popular self-help books are based on karma, including The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and The Four Agreements.

Popular guru Sadhguru -see any hint of narcissism in that name?- titled his own new age cra… Book “Karma“, but out of self-love and self-preservation we skipped going through that.

3. Give And You Will Get (If You’re Smart About It)

This is the belief that there is a 1:1, automatic relationship between giving, and receiving.

There is a backdrop of truth in “the power of giving”.
It’s the reason why any good self-help, including this website, stresses the importance of personal value, and the ability to give.

However, the link between giving, power, and getting, is neither 1:1, nor automatic.

Instead, the ability to give gives you the chance to get something back.
Giving in the belief that you will automatically get back is naive and sets you up for manipulation and failure.
To successfully engaging in relationships and social exchanges requires intelligent strategic thinking, including choosing the right person to give to, in the right circumstances, and making sure you get back.

For a non-naive understanding of how to make the most of giving/taking, see Power University or this article preview:

Social Exchange Theory: 5 Laws of Social Success

Example: The Go-Giver

the go giver book cover

Books like The Go-Giver, based on the false assumption that the more you give, the more you get, are inherently naive.

Naive Self-Help Breeds Over-Cynicism

Unluckily, this is a common pattern for many:

  1. Believe naive self-help
  2. Follow unhelpful models
  3. Fail and realize the hypocrisy and uselessness of naive self-help
  4. Turn bitter or overly cynical

Luckily, it’s not written anywhere that anyone must go through that process.
Good self-help and personal development help you spot naivete, and go straight for what works.

Weapons Against Naive Self Help

It might sound ironic, but…

The best way to avoid naive and unhelpful self-help, is through good self-help and personal self-development.

Becoming a smarter, more power-aware human being who can smell the BS and who can tell a smooth-talking marketer from an actual expert.

Some skills to develop include:

  • Good & non-naive resources
  • Critical thinking skills
    • Scientific method & principles
    • Logic
    • “Reasonable man” concept
  • Personal empowerment, being comfortable in judging, holding strong opinions, and calling BS, BS
  • Enlightened openness: being open to the possibility of learning from anyone, with discernment and critical judgment on
  • Law of balance concept

… And, of course, learning more from this website :).

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