Self-Help Snake Oil and Self-Improvement Urban Legends

Self-Help Snake Oil and Self-Improvement Urban Legends

by Steven Kraus
A psychologist's skeptical look at the science (or lack thereof) behind much of the self-help industry,

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People seeking the help of a psychotherapist almost always do so after trying—and failing—to help themselves. Many have self-medicated, using everything from herbal remedies (e.g., St. John's Wort for depression) to alcohol or other drugs. Still others have tried to enact the psychological advice they sought from friends or family. But many turn to the products and services put forth by what we might call the self-help or self-improvement "industry." It is a large industry indeed. A 2004 study by Marketdata estimated that Americans spend $8.5 billion on self-improvement products and services annually, including over $600 million on self-help books alone.

The problem with the self-improvement industry is that it is better described as an unregulated "wild west" rather than staid science. Certainly much of what this industry offers is high quality, and is put forth by reputable psychologists. But in this article we'll focus on the seamier side of this industry, as we explore self-help snake oil and self-improvement urban legends. In particular, we'll focus on how professional psychologists can help the general public, and their clients in particular, separate the good this industry has to offer from the bad and the ugly. As we shall see, fruitful conversations with clients can result from discussing the misperceptions fostered by snake oil, and the deeper truths underlying many psychological urban legends.

Repeat after me: "Affirmations don't work. Affirmations don't work."

Many self-help books advocate the use of "incantations" or "affirmations." Simply repeat phrases such as "I like myself" over and over again, we are told, and soon we will experience an enhanced self-image and boosted self-esteem. This idea is not new. In the 1920s, French pharmacist Emile Coué created an international fad of "autosuggestion" by encouraging everyone to repeat the mantra: "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." Repeating it aloud 20 times each morning and evening was supposed to result in health, wealth, and pretty much whatever else one wanted (it does, after all, specify improvement "in every way.")

This technique supposedly influenced the unconscious mind, and struck a chord amidst the growing popularization of Freudian psychology. But of course, if this technique worked as advertised, the vast majority of psychotherapists would immediately be out of business, today's epidemic of depression would be easily reversed, and everyone would walk around grinning like Stepford wives. Research clearly demonstrates the many psychological and physical benefits of optimism. The problem is "getting there from here," and affirmations are unlikely to foster an authentic and lasting change from a pessimistic style of thinking to a more optimistic one.

The same criticism could be made of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, which had a record-setting run on best-seller lists in the 1950s and remains popular today. Few would argue with its basic premise, but today its techniques seem quaint and simplistic (For example, Peale recommended "mind clearing," which simply meant purging the mind of negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones.). Many clients will express some familiarity with the concept of positive thinking, and perhaps some frustration with the ineffectiveness of techniques such as affirmations. Psychologists can use these occasions as segues to discussing the very real benefits of optimism, and the more potent techniques for achieving it such as reshaping one's attributional style, or the types of counter-arguing strategies offered by cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Subliminal self-help tapes: Just when you thought affirmations couldn't get easier

Self-help snake oil is typically sold with the promise of easy, effortless change. And perhaps the only thing easier than repeating affirmations is listening to someone else repeat them for you. That's the premise behind subliminal self-help tapes, a $50 million industry featuring products that promise to improve memory, enhance workplace performance, aid in weight loss, and make a host of other lifestyle changes.

These products are simply affirmations with a high-tech makeover and bigger marketing budgets, and every independent study has shown that these tapes don't work as advertised. In fact, they have only two reliable effects, with the first being removing money from the buyer's pocket and placing it into the seller's. The second, more psychologically interesting effect is what psychologist Anthony Pratkanis has called the illusory placebo effect.

Consider one of the studies conducted by Pratkanis and his colleagues. Participants took baseline tests of self-esteem and memory, and then listened to subliminal tapes purported to improve either self-esteem or memory. But here's the twist—half of the participants received tapes that were correctly labeled, while the other half were given mislabeled tapes. In other words, some purported self-esteem-enhancing tapes were labeled as memory improvers, while some tapes that promised to improve memory were labeled as self-esteem enhancers. Everyone was given instructions on how to use the tapes, and each participant was called weekly with encouragement to continue listening to the tapes. Five weeks later, the self-esteem and memory of all participants were measured again.1

Consistent with other studies, these tapes did not deliver the benefits their manufacturers had promised, as there was no significant improvement in self-esteem or memory. Although the tapes themselves had no effect, the labels did. Those who listened to tapes labeled as self-esteem enhancers believed their self-esteem had improved (in fact, self-esteem remained stable). Similarly, those who listened to tapes labeled as memory enhancers believed their memory had improved (in fact, their memories had not improved). Thus the illusory placebo effect: Like a placebo, the tapes had an effect only because users expected them to have an effect, but the effect was illusory, not real.

This study and others like it not only debunk ineffective products, they reveal the insidious nature of self-help snake oil. When people mistakenly believe they have been helped, they fall short of their own potential, and unwittingly aid dubious companies by becoming loyal customers and persuading others to do the same. Nineteenth-century snake oils had similar effects. Many contained a mixture of alcohol and opium known as laudanum, and it pretty much doesn't matter what's wrong with you—taking alcohol and opium will make you feel better, even though the underlying medical conditions often become worse. It is an important message for psychologists and clients alike: Just because something makes you feel temporarily better doesn't mean it is safe, effective, or does what its proponents claim.

For psychotherapists whose clients have tried these products, an opportunity exists to discuss their misleading claims, and contrast them with how psychological change truly happens. A cognitive-behavioral therapist, for example, would likely dismiss the entire premise of reshaping the unconscious mind, choosing to focus instead on conscious thoughts and overt behaviors. In contrast, someone of a more psychoanalytic bent would likely explain that, although unconscious desires are important, psychological change begins with bringing those desires into conscious awareness, a process not facilitated by subliminal affirmations.

The Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke study: A fictitious study can't create an international uproar . . . can it?

How do marketers sell self-help snake oil? By using the "supporting" research from self-improvement urban legends. Subliminal self-help tapes are often sold on the basis of an infamous study conducted in the mind 1950s, in which advertising "expert" James Vicary supposedly exposed thousands of New Jersey movie-goers to the subliminal messages Eat Popcorn and Drink Coke. Vicary claimed dramatic results: an 18-percent increase in Coke sales and a 57.5-percent increase in popcorn sales.

Even more dramatic were the results outside the movie theater. After the study was publicized, several nations outlawed subliminal advertising, and the US Federal Communications Commission threatened to strip the broadcast license of anyone using it. In less than one year after the results were announced, nearly half of Americans had heard of subliminal advertising; by the 1980s, that figure had risen to nearly 80 percent, with two-thirds of those believing it could be effective in shaping behavior. By the mid-90s, subliminal advertising achieved a pop culture mainstream double-whammy—Saturday Night Live and beer commercials—with Kevin Nealon's character Subliminal Man. Today, an online search for "subliminal advertising" yields over 280,000 hits, with "eat popcorn drink coke" yielding over 60,000. And although the first few online results clearly debunk the study, many of these Internet sources present the study as valid evidence for the effectiveness of subliminal self-help products.

There are many "footnotes" to this study that never gained the notoriety of the original—particularly the fact that Vicary recanted. Sort of. In 1962, he admitted that the study wasn't quite as good as advertised (pun intended): "We hadn't done any research, except what was needed for filing for a patent. I had only a minor interest in the company and a small amount of data—too small to be meaningful. And what we had shouldn't have been used promotionally." This carefully worded "non-admission admission" stops short of acknowledging the study as an outright fraud, and opens a loophole that many snake-oil-peddling web sites use to question the sincerity of Vicary's recantation.

But even more damning have been the repeated failures to replicate Vicary's dramatic results. Precisely replicating Vicary's methodology wasn't easy, given that his study was never published in a scientific journal, and the most detailed description of its methodology was in a 1957 issue of Senior Scholastic—a magazine written for junior-high students. But that didn't stop researchers from conducting hundreds of similar studies, virtually all of which conclude that subliminal messages have no significant effect on behavior at all.

Although carefully controlled laboratory studies may be most persuasive to scientists, perhaps it is a pair of naturalistic field studies that best illustrate the point. In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation subliminally flashed the message "Phone Now" 352 times during one of their programs. Not only was there no increase in calls, but when viewers were later asked to guess the message, most reported being hungry or thirsty. Apparently Vicary's subliminal messages of Eat Popcorn and Drink Coke shaped behavior after all—they created a placebo effect that was felt years later and a country away. Remarkably, police in Wichita, Kansas conducted an almost exact replica of this study 20 years later. Desperate for a break in the hunt for the publicity-hungry murderer known as the BTK Killer, police instructed a local television station to subliminally flash the message "Now Call the Chief" during a news broadcast. Unfortunately, no one called, and another 30 years passed before police made an arrest in the case.

Like all great urban legends, the story of the Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke study captured the public imagination despite the evidence largely because it conveyed a message that people were particularly ready to hear. The Zeitgeist of the late 1950s was characterized by Cold War paranoia and the fear that science was being used for negative purposes. Movies like The Manchurian Candidate depicted brainwashed assassins whose behavior was controlled by forces of which they weren't consciously aware. Books like Vance Packard's The Status Seekers revealed how marketers had shifted from overt messages such as Buy Product X to more subtle methods of capitalizing on consumers' fears and insecurities.

The Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke study was not the first—or the last—time that subliminal phenomena became a national fad because they meshed with what people wanted to hear. Consider that...
  • In the early 1900s, psychology and advertising texts described potent subliminal effects, even though the evidence at the time was far from consistent. Not coincidentally, several popular spiritual and self-help movements of the day, such as Christian Science and the New Thought Movement, preached that the human mind had powerful but unconscious abilities to bring about health and happiness.
  • In the 1970s, Wilson Bryan Key created a lucrative cottage industry for himself with a series of best-selling books claiming that subliminal messages were being widely used in print ads. Even today, many people remember his claim that sex is subtly written into ads for everything from alcohol to Ritz crackers, but they reached mainstream popularity during the me decade because they meshed with Americans' rising distrust of advertisers and general loosening of sexual mores.
  • In the 1990s, Americans yearned for more self-help products as the "recovery movement" and "therapy culture" went mainstream. Little wonder they were so ready to believe the claims about subliminal self-help tapes.
Of course, this legend is not the only marketing weapon in the arsenal of snake oil salespeople. They are, for example, experts at making irrelevant research seem as if it supports their claims, and are skilled at blurring the lines between subliminal perception and subliminal persuasion. Research on subliminal perception has conclusively shown that, under highly controlled laboratory conditions, individuals can perceive images which are flashed very briefly, even without being consciously aware of having seen the images. But that does not translate to subliminal persuasion—there is no evidence that broad patterns of thought and behavior can be substantially influenced by subliminal messages. Yet many snake oil web sites deceptively cite studies of subliminal perception as if they are evidence for subliminal persuasion and, by extension, their snake oil products. But as selling tools these studies are not nearly as effective as the Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke study. The fact is that a single vivid study with name recognition is, for most people, far more persuasive than a dozen studies published in scientific journals.

Although professional psychologists are no doubt dismayed that a dubious study is being used to sell dubious products, this is not the only detrimental effect of subliminal myths they are likely to face. Recently a young man called my office seeking something to block subliminal messages because he was being "bombarded" with them. He had seen an article on my web site debunking the subliminal industry, and had clearly missed the point. The sad fact is that he was a troubled young man, and subliminal messages were the least of his problems. The myth of subliminal persuasion led him to misinterpret the psychological challenges facing him, and distracted him from exploring more relevant and effective psychological techniques.

The Yale Study of Goals: Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy and Zig Ziglar can't all be wrong . . . can they?

Unfortunately, the Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke study isn't the only urban legend used to sell less-than-effective self-improvement products. The "Yale Study of Goals," for example, has become a staple in the repertoire of motivational speakers and modern self-help writers. It has even been described in more than one best-selling book.2 As typically described, there are three elements to the study:
  • The 1953 graduating class at Yale was interviewed.
  • 3 percent had written specific written goals for their futures.
  • 20 years later, that 3 percent was found to be worth more financially than the other 97 percent combined.
This study would indeed be a dramatic illustration of the power of goal setting, except for one minor point: it was never conducted. There are literally hundreds of published studies on goals. I have read virtually all of them, and although I have read about the Yale Study of Goals in several popular self-help books, I have never seen a single reference to it in the research literature.

The Consulting Debunking Unit of Fast Company magazine deserves credit for unmasking this study as an urban legend that was passed uncritically via word of mouth until it was accepted as truth.3 When they approached Tony Robbins for documentation, a spokesperson explained that the background material for Robbins' 1986 best-seller Unlimited Power (which cites the study) "met a disastrous end," and suggested that self-help author Brian Tracy might know more. Tracy, in turn, explained how he often describes the study in his books and speeches, and that he learned of the study from motivational speaker and sales guru Zig Ziglar. When reached for comment, Ziglar was unable to locate the original study, suggesting, "Try Tony Robbins." The circle was complete. Yale gets numerous requests for information about this study and, despite extensive research, has never found any evidence that it was ever conducted. As one Yale spokesperson put it, "We are quite confident that the 'study' did not take place. We suspect it is a myth."

Urban legends typically get repeated because they convey a moral or have some deeper meaning, and there is considerable truth to the notion that goals can enhance performance. Although this urban legend is certainly not as misleading as the Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke study, it remains an excellent example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For example, the research is clear that goals only enhance performance if they are set properly (in my work, I use the acronym SCAMPI to teach the elements of effective goals: Specific, Challenging, Approach, Measurable, Proximal, Inspirational). This urban legend fails to convey this important caveat, and doesn't teach these goal-setting principles. By coming across as "the whole story," this urban legend minimizes any motivation the reader might have to dig deeper and learn more about the true science of goal setting.

A Final Thought

A clinical psychologist's early sessions with a new client often focus largely on the history of the client's problems, including what has helped and what hasn't. An important component of such discussions are the client's history of less-than-successful attempts to solve their problems themselves. Therapists can better steer these conversations toward valuable insights and effective solutions if they are knowledgeable about the half-truths of self-improvement urban legends and the unkept promises of self-help snake oil.

Clearly, as psychologists, we have more than a therapeutic duty of helping clients solve problems—we have an educational duty as well. This obviously includes educating clients that "technique X doesn't work" or "study Y wasn't really conducted." But it should also include using this debunking as a springboard to educating clients about genuine processes for psychological change, which almost always involve thought, effort and action. The educational role that psychologists play will not only help clients solve problems in the short-term, it will help them evaluate "too good to be true" promises long after their psychotherapy sessions end. In short, it will give clients the skills to help them recognize and avoid self-help snake oil and focus on methods that work.

Notes

1Anthony Pratkanis, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, summarized this study and others in his article The Cargo-Cult Science of Subliminal Persuasion. Published in the Spring 1992 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, it can be found online at www.csicop.org/si/9204/subliminal-persuasion.html. Interested readers may also want to check out Subliminal Perception: Facts and Fallacies by Timothy Moore (http://www.csicop.org/si/9204/subliminal-perception.html).

2For example, it can be found on page 200 of Anthony Robbins' (1986) best-seller Unlimited Power, and on page 26 of Bill Phillips' (1999) Body for Life (which even gets the legend wrong, describing it as being conducted at Harvard).

3See page 38 of their December, 1996 issue, or read it on the Internet at www.fastcompany.com/online/06/cdu.html. The quote from the Yale spokesperson at the end of the paragraph comes from that article as well.

For more about Dr. Kraus's science-based systems for success, visit his web site on Positive Psychology: The REAL Science of Success, or his Positive Psychology & Success Blog.

Note: This article was first published in the June 2005 issue of The San Francisco Psychologist (www.SFPA.net).

Copyright © 2006 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved.
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Steven Kraus Stephen Kraus, PhD is author of many articles and the scientific self-help book, "Psychological Foundations of Success: A Harvard-Trained Scientist Separates the Science of Success from Self-Help Snake Oil." He has a PhD in psychology from Harvard University, and has twice won Harvard's award for excellence in teaching. His insights are regularly quoted in the media, and his research is cited in major psychology textbooks.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Understand the validity, and lack thereof, of various self-help strategies.
  • Consider psychotherapists? roles and responsibilities regarding clients? efforts to employ self-help methods in their lives.