13 Self-Help BS & Myths: Updated List (Plus, Fixes)

self help lies

If you have a critical approach to life and knowledge, you probably cannot stand self-help myths, pop-psychology, and outright fabrications.

Sometimes they are hard to spot though because you cannot read hundred of psychological researches and scientific studies “just to make sure”.
So you end up “kinda of” trusting the self-help guru.

But that’s far from ideal because you will not fully trust and accept what’s actually true and life-changing and you might end up following advice which is actually unproductive.

Well, this article is here to help.
Bookmark it because I will be constantly updating and it can be your resource on the self-help lies you can avoid.

Bookmark it because I will be constantly updating it.

Self-Help Myth #1 – 10,000 rules

self help myth
2 more minutes… And I’m a pro.

If you want to become world-class good all you need to do is put in 10.000 hours.

Culprits
  • Outliers (Malcom Gladwell)
  • Countless self-help gurus after Gladwell
The Self-Help Lie

Gladwell -and countless self-help gurus since then- argued that becoming an expert at anything is mostly about how long you practiced.

All great achievers practiced around 10.000 rules showed Gladwell ranging from Bill Gates to The Beatles (he was wrong).

So if you want to do the same, just put in the time, and you’ll be world-class.

Critical Thinking Analysis

Just think about these variables:

  • What field are we talking about? They can’t be all the same can they
  • What about your starting level?
  • How do you practice? 
  • Natural abilities?
  • Competitiveness of the field?

After all, hey, I probably logged in 10.000 exercisings or cooking since I’ve born. 
Yet I ain’t no world-class at any.

But who wants to be the Grinch on the feel-good feast and get into those dull and tedious questions?

Just do 10.000 hours and you’re fine.
Or are you…

Why It’s Wrong

The questions above alone should make it clear why the 10.000-hour rule is a major self-help lie.

Anders Ericsson, the author of the original research explains in “Peak“, his seminal book on peak performance:

  1. “10.000” is an average in a specific field and, per se, it means nothing
  2. It’s more about how you train than how long
  3. The research does not prove that logging a certain amount of hours will make anyone an expert

Basically: there is no 10.000 “rule” to speak of.

Why They Myth Spread

Gladwell takes advantage of two human psychological biases to spread this self-help lie:

  1. We all want to believe we’re no less talented than top performers
  2. We all want to believe we can do anything we set our minds to

And of course, self-help gurus can make more money by selling the feel-good idea that “yes, just put in the time, and you’re world-class”.

What to Do Instead

It’s more about how you practice then how long you practice.
Also read:

Self-Help Myth #2 – Incantations

Repeat yourself a mantra and you will eventually come to believe it and embody it.
Say it with enough conviction, and you become the mantra.

Culprits
The Self-Help Lie

The idea, like almost all self-help myths, is captivating. 
All you gotta do to change is to repeat the new mantra to yourself.

Brian Tracy invites his readers to repeat throughout the day “I’m the best, I’m the best, I’m the best”.

Tony Robbins tells in its programs to repeat “all I have is within myself, all I have is within myself”.

Try it, and you’ll see how douchey you will feel :).
Jokes aside, I actually did try it, and it did provide me with a burst of confidence and good feelings.

But… Does it really work behind that burst?
Let’s see the science behind it:

The Truth

Incantations are mostly marketed as a tool for people with low self-esteem and confidence.
Problem is, it’s exactly to people with low self-esteem that incantations are the most useless.

Studies show indeed that people with low self-esteem are not ready to accept positive feedback from themselves (Joseph et al., 2003).

It makes sense, no?

People with low self-esteem have a low opinion of themselves, so they are not ready and willing to accept positive feedback from someone whom they don’t really respect (themselves).

And what about people with an already healthy level of confidence and self-esteem?
Even for them, incantations don’t seem to be very useful.
Says psychologist Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology:

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

What To Do

Better options:

  • Work to improve yourself to the point where you receive (real) positive feedback from others
  • Challenge your negative thoughts, “talk back” to them with well-reasoned arguments
  • Ask yourself questions and then force yourself to come up with positive answers (Senay Et Al., 2010)

For the sake of full disclosure, Tony Robbins also later caught up and switched to recommending questions instead of incantations.

Self-Help Myth #3 – Brain Plasticity

The brain can rewire and change itself, and that means that you can learn anything.

Perpetrators

The Self-Help Lie

There is no talent, only effort. 

Since the brain is plastic, you can learn anything and you can get good at anything. 

Studies, books and researchers are often quoted to give a scientific backing to this self-help myth (Ramachandran with Phantoms in The Brain and Norman Doige with The Brain That Changes Itself are two common ones).

Critical Thinking Analysis

If the brain was infinitely plastic, then it would be able to always rewire and repair itself. 
And we would have no neurosurgeons and no psychiatrists.

Unluckily, we do.

And if talent mattered so little, then we would not see certain ethnicities or certain body types dominating in certain fields.
But we do.

The Truth

The brain is plastic… Quite a bit.
But that doesn’t mean it can rewire itself limitlessly.

For example, Brain plasticity is region-specific, meaning that some regions are more plastic and some are less plastic (Bindschaedler et al., 2011).
And contrary to self-help authors who (mis)quote Paul Bach-t-Rita, regions of the brains do specialize.

For more on nature VS nurture debate, also check “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker.

What To Do

Some of the brain plasticity exaggerations have been borne out of the idealization of some researchers.

But we must be careful not to fall into the “lone, rebel genius who tells us what we want to hear”. 

Of course, you can improve… You can improve on pretty much anything.
That is so true and so empowering that we don’t need lies around it.
Lies will only disempower you.
Truth will empower you.

And the truth says that albeit you can improve at anything, you are also better off choosing fields where you have a natural affinity for.

Self-Help Myth #4 – Only 7% of Communication is Verbal

Most meaning of human communication is nonverbal, so you can forget about the actual words.

Perpetrators
Critical Thinking Analysis

Just think about, if you were to deliver a toast at your best friend wedding and say:

Sorry to say this at your wedding and in front of everyone mate.
But I must take this off my cheast.
I have repeatedly had sex with your wife. Together with all our freinds BTW.
Your wife is a huge slut.

Would the message be any positive or funny if he were to say it with a smile, or with a relaxed body language?

No, of course. 
That message could only range from shocking to the most awkward “joke” ever.
And that’s because, in many situations, words account for far more than 7%.

The Truth

Mehrabian’s research was highly specific and only dealing with attitudes of likes and dislikes.

This is what, in a nutshell, the Mehrabian study tells us:

When it comes to feelings and atittudes, we get most of our cues of the speaker’s intent from non-verbal sources.
When the two are in conflict, we give precedene to non-verbals.

That’s the truth of the study and it cannot be generalized outside of feelings and attitudes.

Furthermore, quantifying it in terms of percentage is meaningless of course.
And extrapolating to all situations is equally meaningless.

Self-Help Myth #5 – EI Is 80% Of Success

IQ doesn’t matter, it’s all about how you understand and get along with people.

Perpetrators
The Self-Help Lie

This self-help lie was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s bestseller “Emotional Intelligence”.

For the sake of clarity, Goleman stated that he has been misquoted and misrepresented, but of course, that didn’t stop people from bashing IQ, which is hardly modifiable, in favor of emotional intelligence, which is far more malleable (and marketable).

Critical Thinking Check

Just think about:

  • How do you measure and define “success” and “EI”? 
  • Based on what can do you come up with a precise 80/20 split?
  • In which field does the 80/20 apply?

We could go on at length, but albeit I am a HUGE supporter of increasing your EI, the claim that EI beats IQ 8 to 2 makes no sense.

The Truth

Countless studies show a positive correlation between EI and effective leadership (George, 2000).

But Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, also found out that EI rises until mid-level management but then decreases at CEO level.

Hence, if we measure “success” as the “ability to climb hierarchical structures in business organizations”, then the claim that EI is 80% of success is blatantly not true.

If you’re interested in the topic, read more here:

Self-Help Myth #5 – Focus Only on Positives

If you focus on positives you will be happier and more successful. If you focus on the negative you will be unhappier

Perpetrators
The Self-Help Lie

It seems so straightforward, right?

There is a connection between mind and body. And most people agree here and research backs it (even the Latins knew it with “mens sana in corpore sano“).

So the more you focus on the positives, the better off you are, right?

Well, not so fast… 

The Truth

This one is not wrong… It’s just correct only up to a certain point.

Frederickson and Losada found out that too many positives become harmful above a certain threshold (11:1).

Here it is in the words of Daniel Pink (To Sell is Human, 2013), referring to too much positivity suffocating reality:

Life becomes a festival of Panglossian cluelessness, where self-delusion suffocates self-improvement.
Some negativity (…) is essential to offer us feedback on our performance

Furthermore, research shows that thinking about the worst-case scenario can help people to manage their anxiety and lower the pressure. This phenomenon has a name in psychology, and it’s “defensive pessimism” (Norem, 2001).
Dale Carnegie recommended it much before there was any research on it (“How to Stop Worrying and Start Living“).

Edit:
Losada has been heavily discredited in his math calculation to reach the threshold (especially in his 3:1 positive to negatives needed to “flourish”).

Read more in pop-psychology myths, but it’s fair to think that, beyond the exact numbers, the overall theory is good.

Self-Help Myth #6 – Release Anger

boxer punching

To feel better and live fully, you must let out all negative emotions.

Perpetrators
The Self-Help Lie

Bottling up anger and negative emotions is destructive. Hence, it’s much better to let them all go.

Yell, scream, hit a punching back.. And you will release all that poison and feel much better.

Or is it…

The Truth

There is plenty of evidence that venting your anger actually only makes you more angry and aggressive (Stack, 1999) and increases the negative consequences of anger (Lohr et al., 2007).

Self-Help Myth #7 – Mental Barriers (AKA: The Bannister Effect)

Barriers are all your in mind, and Bannister proved it.

Perpetrators
The Self-Help Lie

Before Roger Bannister people didn’t believe it was possible to run a mile under 4 minutes.

So people simply never did.

But the moment that Bannister did run the mile in less than 4 minutes, he showed it was possible.
Bannister broke a psychological barrier.

And what happened?

After him, plenty of others did break the 4 minutes barrier.

Why?

Because the limitation was in the mind.

Critical Thinking Approach

Just think about: how could this even make any sense?

Do people run with a clock in their hands that they check before crossing the finish line?
And even if they did, would they slow down just to make sure they don’t finish within 4 minutes?

And even if they did that, couldn’t that be a motivation to go under 4 minutes instead of a motivation to go slower?

This never made sense to me.
And indeed:

The Truth

Bannister broke a record that was standing for 9 years.

Not 90, not 900, and not 9.000.
Just 9 years. 

Furthermore, the record Bannister broke was set in 1954, a period when running as a sport was hobbled by 5 years of raging war (running from bullets doesn’t count as training).

And as a matter of fact, runners in unofficial competitions from countries that didn’t take part in the war had already gone sub-4 minutes.

But even if we were not to consider that and only remove 5 years from the 9 years gap in the record progressions, then we get 4 years, which is pretty much in line with the average gap between records (Wikipedia list of records).

The “Bannister effect” sounds like a good story, but doesn’t hold to scrutiny. 
Even Bannister himself said it’s not true that experts believed that a sub-4 minute was impossible.

Fun fact: the last record is 3:43 and has been standing for 20 years.
Are we in need of breaking a “3:43” psychological barrier now? 🙂

Self-Help Myth #8 – Force Yourself Into Positive States

You become what you think of. Force yourself to think positive and you’re good.

Perpetrators
  • Tom Bylieu
  • Countless self-help gurus
The Lie

If you force yourself to “control your states” and “think positive, then you never have to feel down, sad or depressed.

And your states will naturally translate into more success.

It’s an attractive thought because most people want to be happy and avoid pain.
But…

The Truth

Research shows that switching to a good mood when we’re normal is easy.
But it’s when we have little mental capacity left that becomes difficult (Wegner, 1994).

So what happens when we’re anxious or stressed and we “force” ourselves to feel good is that we fail.
And when we’re already down and we fail to switch to happy, we feel even worse and powerless.

The Solution

Accept the idea that it’s OK not to be always happy.
Really.

Wegner also says that if you want to switch mood, getting other people to help and/or changing environment can be more effective than trying to force a state change by yourself.

Self-Help Myth #9 – Smile And You’re Happy

To be happy, you just need to smile.

Perpetrators
  • Tony Robbins
The Lie

This was actually backed by a famous study originally called in psychology the “facial feedback hypothesis” (Strack Et Al., 1988).
It was so popular that it was often even though in beginners’ psychology courses.

I still remember Tony Robbins yelling on the tapes “smile and look up in the sky and try to feel sad… It’s impossible”.
It was also impossible to be a normal and well-adjusted human being though :). 

The Truth

A much larger successive study failed to replicate its results (Wagenmakers Et Al., 2016). 

Self-Help Myth #10 – Visualize Winning

The more you visualize yourself winning, the closer you get to actually winning.

Perpetrators
The Lie

Self-help gurus sell this one as the “secret” of all the winning athletes. They visualize winning and, guess what… ?
They win.

Easy, no?

Critical Thinking Analysis

Since this is not a secret at all, what’s stopping the non-successful athletes to visualize?

As a matter of fact, I bet many do.

So visualizing cannot be the main differentiator between winners and non-winners.

The Truth

One study shows that thinking about goals increases the number of times people thought of those goals and decreased the amount of actual work (Fishback & Choi, 2012).

Another research shows  that people who used visualization to envision themselves studying instead of getting an A not only performed better, but also experienced less stress and anxiety (Pham et al., 1999),

What To Do

If too much visualizing is taking time away from work, remind yourself that work trumps visualization.

And don’t visualize yourself too much with the gold medal but also focus on the process.

Self-Help Myth #11 – Law of Attraction

the secret book cover

If you think often enough and with enough conviction about what you want you can attract it in your life.

Perpetrators
Critical Thinking

Oh well… Do we really need to apply critical thinking to the law of attraction?

I think that your critical thinking side of the brain is laughing too hard now to even think straight.

Self-Help Myth #12 – Goal Setting in Yale

A survey of Yale’s class of 1953 found out that people who wrote down their goals out-earned all the rest by several orders of magnitude.

Perpetrators
  • Zig Ziglar
  • Tony Robbins
  • Brian Tracy
  • Countless gurus
Critical Thinking

This could have been just another case of correlation and said nothing about causation.
But, it turns out, it’s even worse.

The Truth

Some people looked for the source of this study. 
And there was none.

Finally, Yale University itself came out saying a survey on goal setting was never conducted.

Self-Help Myth #13 – High Self-Esteem

Psychology today has largely moved past what’s been dubbed the “self-esteem movement“.
Yet, it’s still very popular in the self-help literature, which tends to embrace this stance:

The more confident and the higher your self esteem, the better off you are.

That’s not wholly wrong. High self-esteem is good.
But only if accompanied by a growth mindset and an antifragile ego.

Otherwise, high self-esteem only means more threats to that self-esteem.
You become more defensive and, potentially, also more aggressive.

Paradoxically, the higher your self-esteem, the more dangers you see in your external environment.

Writes social psychologist Roy Baumeister in his seminal work “Evil“:

Violence ensues when people feel that their favorable views of themselves are threatened or disputed by others.
As a result, people whose self-esteem is high but lacks 
a firm basis in genuine accomplishment are especially prone to be violence because they are most likely to have their narcissistic bubble burst.

In psychology this is sometimes referred to as “status consistency”, and it’s an important cause of domestic violence (Hornung et al., 1981)

So yes, do seek high self-esteem, but only if you can back it up with an antifragile ego.

Bonus: The “Self-Help Nice-Sounding Stories”

Some self-help gurus love telling stories that sound nice and wow people, but that actually have little to do with reality.

Some of these self-help lies are:

  • Bucket-crab mentality

The story goes that if you put crabs in a bucket they will not manage to escape because they all prevent each other’s attempts to escape.

It seeks to describe the self-defeating mindset of jealous people who focus on keeping their friends low instead of focusing on going higher.

That makes sense for people.
But even though I don’t any crustacean psychologists I believe this is another case of ethnocentrism at play: the belief that animals or things feel the same way that we do.

  • The boiling frog

If you put a frog into boiling water it will jump out. But if you slowly heat the water, the frog will boil to death.

The self-help message then is that we should all react more quickly and we should all refuse to settle for less-than-ideal situations (or temperatures :).

Of course, it’s not true.

Dr. Victor Hutchison, Professor Emeritus of Biology says “The legend is entirely incorrect!”
If you’re interested in the experiments, you can read a bit more here.

As a matter of fact, the opposite might be true.
Douglas Melton, professor of biology at Harvard, says:

If you put a frog in boiling water, it will not jump out. It will die.
(and if you increase temperature slowly) it will jump before it gets hot.

  • The ostrich effect

The ostrich effect is somewhat similar to the boiling frog.

The ostrich puts its head in the sand to “escape” from problems.

Of course, this makes little sense to anyone who’s any familiar with Darwin and evolution.

Sure, evolution is not perfect, but how could such an evidently self-defeating behavior take hold across a whole species?

Indeed, it’s simply not true
Ostriches do not escape reality by burying their hands in the sand. 

Anti-Snake Oil Checklist

It can be difficult sometimes to recognize the self-help wheat from the self-help chaff, so here is a quick checklist: 

  • Is the advice a sales pitch?

If the advice is packaged in a sales pitch chances are that its goal is to grab attention and sell… Not necessarily to share what’s useful and what’s true.

  • Does it refer to researchES, consensus?

Notice the plural.
A single research is almost meaningless (also read “How to Lie With Statistics). 

  • Does it make sense?

You will notice that some self-help myth doesn’t even make sense (ie.: verbal communication is only 7% of the meaning).

  • Does it provide actual measures?

“Better”, “more”, “quicker” mean nothing.
How better, how much more, how quicker?

Plenty of research shows a correlation between and weather and stock performance. 
Yet, would you invest based on the weather?

No, because the effect is minimal.

  • Does it use correlation?

Remember: correlation is not causation. 
The self-help gurus who don’t get this are either dumb or in bad faith.
Read more in: Fooled by Randomness.

  • Does it sound too easy, simple or generic?

Life rarely is simple and easy and generalizations almost always fall into the category of “poor advice”.

SUMMARY

This article lists some of the most pervasive and false self-help myths.

If you know of any that I missed, please do let me know in the forum or in the comments.

Please also note that this resource is not an attack against self-help and self-development.
Self-help can change your life if you let it.

Also read:

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