Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge

Part of the se­quence: The Science of Win­ning at Life

Some have sug­gested that the Less Wrong com­mu­nity could im­prove read­ers’ in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity more effec­tively if it first caught up with the sci­en­tific liter­a­ture on pro­duc­tivity and self-help, and then en­abled read­ers to de­liber­ately prac­tice self-help skills and ap­ply what they’ve learned in real life.

I think that’s a good idea. My con­tri­bu­tion to­day is a quick overview of sci­en­tific self-help: what pro­fes­sion­als call “the psy­chol­ogy of ad­just­ment.” First I’ll re­view the state of the in­dus­try and the sci­en­tific liter­a­ture, and then I’ll briefly sum­ma­rize the sci­en­tific data available on three top­ics in self-help: study meth­ods, pro­duc­tivity, and hap­piness.

The in­dus­try and the literature

As you prob­a­bly know, much of the self-help in­dus­try is a sham, ripe for par­ody. Most self-help books are writ­ten to sell, not to help. Pop psy­chol­ogy may be more myth than fact. As Christo­pher Buck­ley (1999) writes, “The more peo­ple read [self-help books], the more they think they need them… [it’s] more like an ad­dic­tion than an al­li­ance.

Where can you turn for re­li­able, em­piri­cally-based self-help ad­vice? A few lead­ing ther­a­peu­tic psy­chol­o­gists (e.g., Albert Ellis, Arnold Lazarus, Martin Selig­man) have writ­ten self-help books based on decades of re­search, but even these works tend to give recom­men­da­tions that are still de­bated, be­cause they aren’t yet part of set­tled sci­ence.

Lifelong self-help re­searcher Clay­ton Tucker-Ladd wrote and up­dated Psy­cholog­i­cal Self-Help (pdf) over sev­eral decades. It’s a sum­mary of what sci­en­tists do and don’t know about self-help meth­ods (as of about 2003), but it’s also more than 2,000 pages long, and much of it sur­veys sci­en­tific opinion rather than ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults, be­cause on many sub­jects there aren’t any ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults yet. The book is as­so­ci­ated with an in­ter­net com­mu­nity of peo­ple shar­ing what does and doesn’t work for them.

More im­me­di­ately use­ful is Richard Wise­man’s 59 Se­conds. Wise­man is an ex­per­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and para­nor­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tor who gath­ered to­gether what lit­tle self-help re­search is part of set­tled sci­ence, and put it into a short, fun, and use­ful Mal­colm Glad­well-ish book. The next best pop­u­lar-level gen­eral self-help book is per­haps Martin Selig­man’s What You Can Change and What You Can’t.

Two large books rate hun­dreds of pop­u­lar self-help books ac­cord­ing to what pro­fes­sional psy­chol­o­gists think of them, and offer ad­vice on how to choose self-help books. Un­for­tu­nately, this may not mean much be­cause even pro­fes­sional psy­chol­o­gists very of­ten have opinions that de­part from the em­piri­cal data, as doc­u­mented ex­ten­sively by Scott Lilien­feld and oth­ers in Science and Pseu­do­science in Clini­cal Psy­chol­ogy and Nav­i­gat­ing the Mind­field. Th­ese two books are helpful in as­sess­ing what is and isn’t known ac­cord­ing to em­piri­cal re­search (rather than ac­cord­ing to ex­pert opinion). Lilien­feld also ed­its the use­ful jour­nal Scien­tific Re­view of Men­tal Health Prac­tice, and has com­piled a list of harm­ful psy­cholog­i­cal treat­ments. Also see Nathan and Gor­man’s A Guide to Treat­ments That Work, Roth & Fon­agy’s What Works for Whom?, and, more gen­er­ally, Stanovich’s How to Think Straight about Psy­chol­ogy.

Many self-help books are writ­ten as “one size fits all,” but of course this is rarely ap­pro­pri­ate in psy­chol­ogy, and this leads to reader dis­ap­point­ment (Norem & Chang, 2000). But psy­chol­o­gists have tested the effec­tive­ness of read­ing par­tic­u­lar prob­lem-fo­cused self-help books (“bibliother­apy”).1 For ex­am­ple, it ap­pears that read­ing David Burns’ Feel­ing Good can be as effec­tive for treat­ing de­pres­sion as in­di­vi­d­ual or group ther­apy. Re­sults vary from book to book.

There are at least four uni­ver­sity text­books that teach ba­sic sci­en­tific self-help. The first is Weiten, Dunn, and Ham­mer’s Psy­chol­ogy Ap­plied to Modern Life: Ad­just­ment in the 21st Cen­tury. It’s ex­pen­sive, but you can pre­view it here. Others are are Santrock’s Hu­man Ad­just­ment, Duffy et al.‘s Psy­chol­ogy for Liv­ing, and Ne­vid & Rathus’ Psy­chol­ogy and the Challenges of Life.

If you read only one book of self-help in your life, I recom­mend Weiten, Dunn, and Ham­mer’s Psy­chol­ogy Ap­plied to Modern Life.2 Un­for­tu­nately, like Tucker-Ladd’s Psy­cholog­i­cal Self-Help, many sec­tions of the book are an overview of sci­en­tific opinion rather than ex­per­i­men­tal re­sult, be­cause so few ex­per­i­men­tal stud­ies on the sub­ject have been done!

In pri­vate cor­re­spon­dance with me, Weiten re­marked:

You are look­ing for sub­stance in what is ul­ti­mately a black hole of em­piri­cal re­search …Ba­si­cally, al­most ev­ery­thing writ­ten on the topic em­pha­sizes the com­plete lack of ev­i­dence.

Per­haps I am overly cyn­i­cal, but I sus­pect that em­piri­cal tests are nonex­is­tent be­cause the au­thors of self-help and time-man­age­ment ti­tles are not at all con­fi­dent that the re­sults would be fa­vor­able. Hence, they have no in­cen­tive to pur­sue such re­search be­cause it is likely to un­der­mine their sales and their abil­ity to write their next book. Another is­sue is that many of the au­thors who crank out these ti­tles have lit­tle or no back­ground in re­search. In a less cyn­i­cal vein, an­other is­sue is that this re­search would come with all the formidable com­plex­ities of the re­search eval­u­at­ing the effec­tive­ness of differ­ent ap­proaches to ther­apy. Effi­cacy tri­als for ther­a­pies are ex­tremely difficult to con­duct in a clean fash­ion and be­cause of these com­plex­ities re­quire big bucks in the way of grants.

Other lead­ing re­searchers in the psy­chol­ogy of ad­just­ment ex­pressed much the same opinion of the field when I con­tacted them.

A sam­pling of sci­en­tific self-help advice

Still, per­haps sci­en­tific psy­chol­ogy can offer some use­ful self-help ad­vice. I’ll fo­cus on two ar­eas of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to the Less Wrong com­mu­nity—study­ing and pro­duc­tivity—and on one area of gen­eral in­ter­est: hap­piness.

Study methods

Or­ga­nize for clar­ity the in­for­ma­tion you want to learn, for ex­am­ple in an out­line (Ein­stein & McDaniel 2004; Tigner 1999; McDaniel et al. 1996). Cram­ming doesn’t work (Wong 2006). Set up a sched­ule for study­ing (All­good et al. 2000). Test your­self on the ma­te­rial (Karpicke & Roedi­ger 2003; Roedi­ger & Karpicke 2006a; Roedi­ger & Karpicke 2006b; Agar­wal et al. 2008; But­ler & Roedi­ger 2008), and do so re­peat­edly, with 24 hours or more be­tween study ses­sions (Rohrer & Tay­lor 2006; Seabrook et al 2005; Cepeda et al. 2006; Rohrer et al. 2005; Karpicke & Roedi­ger 2007). Ba­si­cally: use Anki.

To re­tain stud­ied in­for­ma­tion more effec­tively, try acros­tics (Her­mann et al. 2002), the link method (Iac­cino 1996; Worthen 1997); and the method of loci (Massen & Vater­rodt-Plun­necke 2006; Moe & De Beni 2004; Moe & De Beni 2005).


Un­for­tu­nately, there have been fewer ex­per­i­men­tal stud­ies on effec­tive pro­duc­tivity and time man­age­ment meth­ods than there have been on effec­tive study meth­ods. For an overview of sci­en­tific opinion on pro­duc­tivity, I recom­mend pages 121-126 of Psy­chol­ogy Ap­plied to Modern Life. Ac­cord­ing to those pages, com­mon ad­vice from pro­fes­sion­als in­cludes:

  1. Do­ing the right tasks is more im­por­tant than do­ing your tasks effi­ciently. In fact, too much con­cern for effi­ciency is a lead­ing cause of pro­cras­ti­na­tion. Say “no” more of­ten, and use your time for tasks that re­ally mat­ter.

  2. Del­e­gate re­spon­si­bil­ity as of­ten as pos­si­ble. Throw away unim­por­tant tasks and items.

  3. Keep a record of your time use. (Quan­tified Self can help.)

  4. Write down your goals. Break them down into smaller goals, and break these into man­age­able tasks. Sched­ule these tasks into your cal­en­dar.

  5. Pro­cess notes and emails only once. Tackle one task at a time, and group similar tasks to­gether.

  6. Make use of your down­time (plane rides, bus rides, doc­tor’s office wait­ings). Th­ese days, many of your tasks can be com­pleted on your smart­phone.

Why the dearth of ex­per­i­men­tal re­search on pro­duc­tivity? A lead­ing re­searcher on the topic, Piers Steel, ex­plained to me in per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion:

Fields tend to progress from de­scrip­tion to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, and the pro­cras­ti­na­tion field is just start­ing to move to­wards that di­rec­tion. There re­ally isn’t very much di­rectly done on pro­cras­ti­na­tion, but there is more for the broader field of self-reg­u­la­tion… it should trans­fer as the fun­da­men­tals are the same. For ex­am­ple, I would bet ev­ery­thing I own that goal set­ting works, as there [are] about [a thou­sand stud­ies] on it in the mo­ti­va­tional field (just not speci­fi­cally on pro­cras­ti­na­tion). On the other hand, we are build­ing a be­hav­ioral lab so we can test many of these tech­niques head to head, some­thing that sorely needs to be done.

Steel’s book on the sub­ject is The Pro­cras­ti­na­tion Equa­tion, which I highly recom­mend.


There is an abun­dance of re­search on fac­tors that cor­re­late with sub­jec­tive well-be­ing (in­di­vi­d­u­als’ own as­sess­ments of their hap­piness and life satis­fac­tion).

Fac­tors that don’t cor­re­late much with hap­piness in­clude: age,3 gen­der,4 par­ent­hood,5 in­tel­li­gence,6 phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness,7 and money8 (as long as you’re above the poverty line). Fac­tors that cor­re­late mod­er­ately with hap­piness in­clude: health,9 so­cial ac­tivity,10 and re­li­gios­ity.11 Fac­tors that cor­re­late strongly with hap­piness in­clude: ge­net­ics,12 love and re­la­tion­ship satis­fac­tion,13 and work satis­fac­tion.14

For many of these fac­tors, a causal link to hap­piness has also been demon­strated with some con­fi­dence, but that story is too com­pli­cated to tell in this short ar­ti­cle.


Many com­pas­sion­ate pro­fes­sion­als have mod­eled their ca­reers af­ter Ge­orge Miller’s (1969) call to “give psy­chol­ogy away” to the masses as a means of pro­mot­ing hu­man welfare. As a re­sult, hun­dreds of ex­per­i­men­tal stud­ies have been done to test which self-help meth­ods work, and which do not. We hu­mans can use this knowl­edge to achieve our goals.

But much work re­mains to be done. Many fea­tures of hu­man psy­chol­ogy and be­hav­ior are not well-un­der­stood, and many self-help meth­ods recom­mended by pop­u­lar and aca­demic au­thors have not yet been ex­per­i­men­tally tested. If you are con­sid­er­ing psy­chol­ogy re­search as a ca­reer path, and you want to (1) im­prove hu­man welfare, (2) get re­search fund­ing, (3) ex­plore an un­der-de­vel­oped area of re­search, and (4) have the chance to write a best-sel­l­ing self-help book once you’ve done some of your re­search, then please con­sider a ca­reer of ex­per­i­men­tally test­ing differ­ent self-help meth­ods. Hu­man­ity will thank you for it.

Next post: How to Beat Procrastination


1 Read a nice overview of the liter­a­ture in Bergsma, “Do Self-Help Books Help?” (2008).

2 I recom­mend the 10th edi­tion, which has large im­prove­ments over the 9th edi­tion, in­clud­ing 4500 new cita­tions.

3 Age and hap­piness are un­re­lated (Lykken 1999), age ac­count­ing for less than 1% of the vari­a­tion in peo­ple’s hap­piness (In­gle­hart 1990; My­ers & Diener 1997).

4 De­spite be­ing treated for de­pres­sive di­s­or­ders twice as of­ten as men (Nolen-Hoek­sema 2002), women re­port just as high lev­els of well-be­ing as men do (My­ers 1992).

5 Ap­par­ently, the joys and stresses of par­ent­hood bal­ance each other out, as peo­ple with and with­out chil­dren are equally happy (Ar­gyle 2001).

6 Both IQ and ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment ap­pear to be un­re­lated to hap­piness (Diener et al. 2009; Ross & Van Willi­gen 1997).

7 Good-look­ing peo­ple en­joy huge ad­van­tages, but do not re­port greater hap­piness than oth­ers (Diener et al. 1995).

8 The cor­re­la­tion be­tween in­come and hap­piness is sur­pris­ingly weak (Diener & Selig­man 2004; Diener et al. 1993; John­son & Krueger 2006). One prob­lem may be that higher in­come con­tributes to greater ma­te­ri­al­ism, which im­pedes hap­piness (Frey & Stutzer 2002; Kasser et al. 2004; Solberg et al. 2002; Kasser 2002; Van Boven 2005; Nick­er­son et al. 2003; Kah­ne­man et al. 2006).

9 Those with dis­abling health con­di­tions are hap­pier than you might think (My­ers 1992; Riis et al. 2005; Ar­gyle 1999).

10 Those who are satis­fied with their so­cial life are mod­er­ately more happy than oth­ers (Diener & Selig­man 2004; My­ers 1999; Diener & Selig­man 2002).

11 Reli­gios­ity cor­re­lates with hap­piness (Ab­del-Kahlek 2005; My­ers 2008), though it may be re­li­gious at­ten­dance and not re­li­gious be­lief that mat­ters (Chida et al. 2009).

12 Past hap­piness is the best pre­dic­tor of fu­ture hap­piness (Lu­cas & Diener 2008). Hap­piness is sur­pris­ingly un­moved by ex­ter­nal fac­tors (Lykken & Tel­le­gen 1996), be­cause the ge­net­ics ac­counts for about 50% of the var­i­ance in hap­piness (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005; Stubbe et al. 2005).

13 Mar­ried peo­ple are hap­pier than those who are sin­gle or di­vorced (My­ers & Diener 1995; Diener et al. 2000), and mar­i­tal satis­fac­tion pre­dicts hap­piness (Proulx et al. 2007).

14 Unem­ploy­ment makes peo­ple very un­happy (Ar­gyle 2001), and job satis­fac­tion is strongly cor­re­lated with hap­piness (Judge & Klinger 2008; Warr 1999).


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Ar­gyle (2001). The Psy­chol­ogy of Hap­piness (2nd ed.). New York: Rout­ledge.

Buck­ley (1998). God is My Bro­ker: A Monk-Ty­coon Re­veals the 7 12 Laws of Spiritual and Fi­nan­cial Growth. New York: Ran­dom House.

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Chida, Step­toe, & Pow­ell (2009). “Reli­gios­ity/​Spiritu­al­ity and Mor­tal­ity.” Psy­chother­apy and Psy­cho­so­mat­ics, 78(2): 81-90.

Cepeda, Pash­ler, Vul, Wixted, & Rohrer (2006). “Distributed prac­tice in ver­bal re­call tasks: A re­view and quan­ti­ta­tive syn­the­sis.” Psy­cholog­i­cal Bul­letin, 132: 354-380.

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Diener, Wolsic, & Fu­jita (1995). “Phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness and sub­jec­tive well-be­ing.” Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy, 69: 120-129.

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Diener & Selig­man (2002). “Very happy peo­ple.” Psy­cholog­i­cal Science, 13: 80-83.

Diener & Selig­man (2004). “Beyond money: Toward an econ­omy of well-be­ing.” Psy­cholog­i­cal Science in the Public In­ter­est, 5(1): 1-31.

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Ein­stein & McDaniel (2004). Me­mory Fit­ness: A Guide for Suc­cess­ful Aging. New Haven, CT: Yale Univer­sity Press.

Frey & Stutzer (2002). “What can economists learn from hap­piness re­search?Jour­nal of Eco­nomic Liter­a­ture, 40: 402-435.

Her­mann, Ray­beck, & Gruneberg (2002). Im­prov­ing mem­ory and study skills: Ad­vances in the­ory and prac­tice. Ash­land, OH: Ho­grefe & Hu­ber.

Iac­cino (1996). “A fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion of the bizarre imagery mnemonic: Its effec­tive­ness with mixed con­text and de­layed test­ing. Per­cep­tual & Mo­tor Skills, 83: 881-882.

In­gle­hart (1990). Cul­ture shift in ad­vanced in­dus­trial so­ciety. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton Univer­sity Press.

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Kasser (2002). The high prices of ma­te­ri­al­ism. Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kasser, Ryan, Couch­man, & Shel­don (2004). “Ma­te­ri­al­is­tic val­ues: Their causes and con­se­quences.” In Kasser & Kan­ner (Eds.), Psy­chol­ogy and con­sumer cul­ture: The strug­gle for a good life in a ma­te­ri­al­is­tic world. Wash­ing­ton DC: Amer­i­can Psy­cholog­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion.

Karpicke & Roedi­ger (2003). “The crit­i­cal im­por­tance of re­trieval for learn­ing.” Science, 319: 966-968.

Karpicke & Roedi­ger (2007). “Ex­pand­ing re­trieval prac­tice pro­motes short-term re­ten­tion, but equally spaced re­trieval en­hances long-term re­ten­tion.” Jour­nal of Ex­per­i­men­tal Psy­chol­ogy: Learn­ing, Me­mory, and Cog­ni­tion, 33(4): 704-719.

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Massen & Vater­rodt-Plun­necke (2006). “The role of proac­tive in­terfer­ence in mnemonic tech­niques.” Me­mory, 14: 189-196.

McDaniel, Wad­dill, & Shakesby (1996). “Study strate­gies, in­ter­est, and learn­ing from Text: The ap­pli­ca­tion of ma­te­rial ap­pro­pri­ate pro­cess­ing.” In Her­rmann, McEvoy, Hert­zog, Her­tel, & John­son (Eds.), Ba­sic and ap­plied mem­ory re­search: The­ory in con­text (Vol 1). Mah­wah, NJ: Er­lbaum.

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Moe & De Beni (2004). “Study­ing pas­sages with the loci method: Are sub­ject-gen­er­ated more effec­tive than ex­per­i­menter-sup­plied loci?” Jour­nal of Men­tal Imagery, 28(3-4): 75-86.

Moe & De Beni (2005). “Stress­ing the effi­cacy of the Loci method: oral pre­sen­ta­tion and the sub­ject-gen­er­a­tion of the Loci path­way with ex­pos­i­tory pas­sages.” Ap­plied Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy, 19(1): 95-106.

My­ers (1992). The pur­suit of hap­piness: Who is happy, and why. New York: Mor­row.

My­ers & Diener (1995). “Who is happy?Psy­cholog­i­cal Science, 6: 10-19.

My­ers & Diener (1997). “The pur­suit of hap­piness.” Scien­tific Amer­i­can, Spe­cial Is­sue 7: 40-43.

My­ers (1999). “Close re­la­tion­ships and qual­ity of life.” In Kah­ne­mann, Diener, & Sch­warz (Eds.), Well-be­ing: The foun­da­tions of he­do­nic psy­chol­ogy. New York: Sage.

My­ers (2008). “Reli­gion and hu­man flour­ish­ing.” In Eid & Larsen (Eds.), The sci­ence of sub­jec­tive well-be­ing (pp. 323-346). New York: Guilford.

Nick­er­son, Schwartz, Diener, & Kah­ne­mann (2003). “Zero­ing in on the dark side of the Amer­i­can dream: A closer look at the nega­tive con­se­quences of the goal for fi­nan­cial suc­cess.” Psy­cholog­i­cal Science, 14(6): 531-536.

Nolen-Hoek­sema (2002). “Gen­der differ­ences in de­pres­sion.” In Gotlib & Ham­men (Eds.), Hand­book of De­pres­sion. New York: Guilford.

Proulx, Helms, & Ch­eryl (2007). “Mar­i­tal qual­ity and per­sonal well-be­ing: A Meta-anal­y­sis.” Jour­nal of Mar­riage and Fam­ily, 69: 576-593.

Roedi­ger & Karpicke (2006a). “Test-en­hanced learn­ing: Tak­ing mem­ory tests im­proves long-term re­ten­tion.” Psy­cholog­i­cal Science, 17: 249-255.

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