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Are Self-Help Books Helpful?

A recent, small study published in Behavior Research and Therapy by G. Haeffel (and passed along to us by Kenneth Pope, Ph.D.) questions the general use and even the effectiveness of self-help books as “traditionally operationalized and sold in stores.” The author states, “This also raises concerns about the benefits of self-help books (e.g., CBT for Dummies), an industry that generated an estimated $9 billion in 2004.” Parenthetically, although we’ve written books in the For Dummies series, we did not write that particular one.

Since an overwhelming number of other studies support the efficacy of self-help books for the treatment of various disorders, including depression and anxiety, this one study initially came as a bit of a surprise. However, what we found more disturbing was the sweeping generalizations made about the implied ineffectiveness of self-help books in general. Mind you, most self-help books are not even especially intended to standalone as a complete intervention strategy and most authors strongly recommend that they be used as a compliment or adjunct to traditional psychotherapy. Furthermore, if attempts are made to use such books as a standalone approach, most ethical authors repeatedly warn readers to obtain additional professional assistance if symptoms don’t improve promptly.

Next, we took a closer look at the article and in particular the methodology. First, the students were recruited through flyers from a private college and paid to participate. There were 72 participants who agreed and met the criteria of having a high risk for developing depression though they weren’t currently diagnosed with depression. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups and given the task of reading and completing exercises in one of three types of brief, highly focused workbooks (about 80 pages each). How one generalizes from these three mini workbooks to an indictment of the benefits of books as currently sold in stores mystifies us.

The first workbook was based on a traditional cognitive therapy approach in which the reader is asked to identify and dispute negative thoughts. The second workbook (which the author calls “nontraditional”) has the reader identify and develop more realistic thoughts without paying as much attention to negative, dysfunctional thinking. The third workbook (which the author calls “academic”) teaches time management, goal setting, and academic skills. The study found that some participants who completed the traditional cognitive workbook actually had more depressive symptoms than those who completed the other two workbooks. By the way, these workbooks were created for this specific study.

Here are a few of our concerns about this study: First, college students are often stressed out by keeping up with school work. Given their particular stressors, it does seem rather likely that an “academic” workbook aimed at improving study skills could improve their moods. The author talks about self-help books as if they were all the same. Why would a study skills book not be considered a self-help book, too? Most therapists use cognitive behavioral techniques that would incorporate many of the same strategies this author calls “academic,” including goal setting and time management.

The author makes broad conclusions about self-help books possibly being detrimental to a group of students based on a small sample. (Each group had less than 30 members). The provocative title of the article — “When self-help is no help: Traditional cognitive skills training does not prevent depressive symptoms in people who ruminate” — seems a bit grandiose for the limited scope of this study.

On the other hand, we do want to be clear that more research on the effectiveness of self-help and/or adjunctive, bibliotherapy for various disorders is highly warranted. Furthermore, the tendency to ruminate is a well-known risk factor for depression (one which we raise in our books) and may indeed prove to be have an important influence on how such books work, for whom, and when. We also applaud the authors’ efforts to design shorter interventions that may ultimately prove to have value in preventing the development of full blown emotional disorders in the first place.

Finally, as authors of many self-help books in the For Dummies series, we provide comprehensive evidence based material in our books. We make many recommendations to use our materials in addition to psychotherapy. Oh, by the way, where’s our $9 billion?

Are Self-Help Books Helpful?

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of adults and children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and learning disorders. Dr. Smith is a widely published author of articles and books to the profession and the public, including: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2E), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be? Her website is:

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APA Reference
Smith, L. (2010). Are Self-Help Books Helpful?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2018, from


Last updated: 15 Feb 2010
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Feb 2010
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