Cargo Cult, Self-Improvement, and What to Do

Many peo­ple want to change them­selves. They want to be­come hap­pier, smarter, more suc­cess­ful, rich, or at least less di­s­ori­ented. There are in­cred­ibly many books tel­ling peo­ple how they can achieve this, along with sem­i­nars, youtube videos and email in­struc­tions. And the large ma­jor­ity of this self-im­prove­ment liter­a­ture is non­sense.

There is of course a wide range of what the au­thors promise. But the typ­i­cal “If you fol­low this au­thor’s sys­tem, then you will get rich /​ be­come world ruler /​ can do what­ever you want” has some fea­tures worth not­ing.

The liter­a­ture sells well be­cause peo­ple are un­happy with their life, their abil­ities, their habits and *want* to have other lifes, other abil­ities, other habits, and there is only a limited num­ber of ways to cope with this, the most ap­par­ent may be: Do noth­ing and be un­happy, find ways to at­tribute re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­ter­nal cir­cum­stances, find new per­spec­tives or other ways to be happy with­out chang­ing the things that you think make you un­happy—and fi­nally, listen to peo­ple who tell you that they have a clue. Similarly, if you are not un­happy but just very am­bi­tious and, in your own eyes, not very suc­cess­ful, you can try to be ok with that ten­sion, or find au­thors promis­ing you change. In any case, you have made the first step of blam­ing your­self, but in a way that you think you can change—as op­posed to blam­ing your genes alone, or so­ciety. Thus, firstly, self-im­prove­ment books have to overem­pha­size what you can change over what you can’t—it is their sel­l­ing point. So, first ad­vice: Be skep­ti­cal of au­thors who claim that ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble. If some­thing sounds too good to be true, it prob­a­bly is.

Se­condly, the ad­vice is rarely ev­i­dence-based, and the greater the promises, the less valid ev­i­dence. This, of course, should make a reader sus­pi­cious, but only if he has some un­der­stand­ing of sci­en­tific meth­ods. Be­cause many of the au­thors know this, there seems to be a ten­dency to­wards faked sci­en­tifc cred­i­bil­ity in parts of the liter­a­ture, namely those parts that want to seem not only cred­ible, but also se­ri­ous. Th­ese au­thors do not cite sources, but vaguely re­fer to stud­ies con­ducted at some uni­ver­sity, like the fa­mous 1953 Har­vard study or the 1979 Yale study on the effects of writ­ing down goals on life suc­cess (Mike Mor­ri­son has done the re­search—these stud­ies have not been con­ducted, and au­thors copied the story from each other.). So, sec­ond ad­vice: Be sus­pi­cious if the au­thor claims that his ad­vice is backed up by sci­en­tific ev­i­dence and then he does not re­ally cite stud­ies that you can ac­tu­ally look up.

Thirdly, the au­thors of­ten seem them­selves very suc­cess­ful in what they promise to teach. And this they should be—the nat­u­ral ques­tion oth­er­wise would be: If you’re so smart, then why aren’t you rich? But the suc­cess of au­thors is not suffi­cient prove for the sys­tem to work. If you buy a get-happy-and-suc­cess­ful book from the best­sel­lers’ shelve in a large book­store, the au­thors *are* very likely to be suc­cess­ful in happy and suc­cess­ful. Other­wise, you would prob­a­bly not have found their book. An au­thor who has made it to be some­thing be­tween a coach and a guru may pos­si­bly even at­tribute this to his own sys­tem. But sup­pose that you would let 1000 peo­ple write self-help books, all re­sults are use­less, but *ran­domly* 5 of them are suc­cess­ful be­cause there is de­mand for five books. Then this would not tell you any­thing about the qual­ity of their in­sights—as­sum­ing the op­po­site leads to sur­vivor­ship bias. In re­al­ity, peo­ple with bet­ter “sys­tems” may have bet­ter chances of be­com­ing suc­cess­ful in life, but so may peo­ple who are just more over­con­fi­dent, who are charis­matic, or who write well. (Noth­ing of this helps the reader.) What would be nec­es­sary is a ran­dom­ized con­trol­led study of peo­ple fol­low­ing a cer­tain sys­tem and see how many of them were suc­cess­ful. Thus, third ad­vice: As long as this does not ex­ist, do not put too much weight on the au­thor’s own story.

Fourthly, for re­ally am­bi­tious self-op­ti­miza­tion claims, un­scrupu­lous­ness, fraud, con­man writ­ing ad­di­tion­ally comes to the mix. (“Ad­di­tion­ally” be­cause for these au­thors it is true as well that you more of­ten see the suc­cess­ful writ­ers’ books.) It is not always clear whether the more es­o­teric writ­ers talk­ing of psy­chic en­er­gies and wishes di­rected to the uni­verse in spe­cific ways are con­scious fraud­sters or fooled by their own ran­dom suc­cess. How­ever, there were fa­mous self-im­prove­ment au­thors who were most cer­tainly know­ing what they were do­ing in this re­spect (Budge Burgess pro­vides a very in­ter­est­ing story about Napoleon Hill) and still had enor­mous suc­cess. The prob­lem with con­men is that they are good at what they do, and they will rarely tell you that the recipe for suc­cess is to ma­nipu­late read­ers (though there is the old joke of the book ‘how to get rich’ that only con­tains the ad­vice ‘write a book like this’). So, fourth ad­vice, be ex­tra skep­ti­cal if some­one promises ex­traor­di­nary things—and ask your­self some­thing like: If that were true then why isn’t this guy pres­i­dent, or Ap­ple CEO, or some­thing like that?

Fifth point. In the last years, but maybe already ear­lier, I have seen books that study cer­tain fea­tures of the be­hav­ior of very suc­cess­ful peo­ple—tings that suc­cess­ful peo­ple do, how artists plan their day, what ge­nius space war­lords eat for break­fast etc. (The already-men­tioned Napoleon Hill claimed to have done some­thing similar.) This is Cargo Cult par ex­cel­lence: Imi­tat­ing some­thing with­out re­ally know­ing whether it has rele­vance. Imi­tat­ing a ge­nius prob­a­bly won’t make you one. (As Tim Har­ford com­ments on a dis­trac­tion-free writ­ing tool called the Hem­ing­write, “It is prob­a­bly not true that Face­book is all that stands be­tween you and liter­ary great­ness.“) Similar to the suc­cess­ful au­thors, there are no ran­dom­ized con­trol­led ex­per­i­ments about who be­comes a ge­nius if she ap­plies this or that be­hav­ior, as far as I know. Even then, one would have to keep in mind that treat­ment effects may in­ter­act: Give n per­sons with IQ>160 some goal-set­ting and struc­ture and *maybe* they work won­ders. The nor­mal per­son’s out­put may not change much, as work­places and in­sti­tu­tions are already struc­tured around their abil­ities and habits. Thus, even if you find fas­ci­nat­ing whether Ein­stein wore socks (some­thing Chris­tian Ankow­itsch has writ­ten a book about, but it seems more for en­ter­tain­ing than for ex­traor­di­nary promises), do not ex­pect imi­tat­ing him to have much of an effect (fifth ad­vice).

Sixth point and ad­vice. Keep in mind that many self-help books have an in­built mix of blame al­lo­ca­tion and non-falsifi­a­bil­ity. If you don’t suc­ceed, you didn’t fol­low the ad­vice hard enough, maybe not be­lieve in it enough etc. All this means that you are prob­a­bly still un­happy but now you can ad­di­tion­ally blame your­self for an­other failure. More­over, there are ten­den­cies that peo­ple want to be­lieve in the promises of such books—in par­tic­u­lar, if they paid a lot in terms of money or time—to re­duce cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Be aware of this be­hav­ior.

So what to take of this? Are there ac­tu­ally use­ful books out there, and pos­ti­tive rules to find them and use them?

Firstly, trust your com­mon­sense. If you read claims that let you say “Now this is some­thing I should have done all my life, why did noone tell me that?“, then just do it! (Clas­si­cal can­di­date: Dale Carnegie, “How to win friends and in­fluence peo­ple”) If you think it is fraud, it prob­a­bly is (Pos­si­bly it is not, but time is finite! But also the more ba­sic self-or­ga­ni­za­tion and time-man­age­ment books are in this cat­e­gory)

Se­condly, there are some sci­ence-based strate­gies for chang­ing your life, and there are au­thors get­ting them to a read­able book for­mat, e.g. Wise­man’s book “59 sec­onds”. Usu­ally, you will find that the ad­vice of these au­thors is rel­a­tively prac­ti­cal, while their claims are com­pa­rably mod­est.

Thirdly, there are many self-im­prove­ment tech­niques of which you can at least see that they work for *some­one*. For in­stance, if you want to grow mus­cles, you can go the gym and ac­tu­ally see peo­ple who have grown mus­cles. There may again be sur­vivor’s bias at work, but the next step is to read ac­tual, se­ri­ous ad­vice here. Another case is mnemon­ics. You can read books by mem­ory cham­pi­ons who ex­plain what they do, and you can see them perform in con­tests. This usu­ally is a good sign.

Fourthly, it is a good sign if the ad­vice book has low-hang­ing fruits ad­vice: Things you can just try and then de­cice whether it helps. This is the case with the mnemon­ics books, but also for how-to-med­i­tate books (e.g., “10% Hap­pier” by Dan Har­ris).

Fi­nally, you prob­a­bly will not ac­quire su­per­pow­ers. Be re­al­is­tic. The sci­en­tific liter­a­ture on be­com­ing a su­per performer (you need de­liber­ate prac­tice for 10,000 hours to be in the world top class) is much more de­mand­ing than the one on get­ting a bit hap­pier (even ther­a­pies are not 10,000 hours). But you can also eas­ily fulfill more re­al­is­tic claims. Learn­ing to play ‘Lady in Black’ on the gui­tar is much eas­ier than be­com­ing rich and fa­mous. Maybe that is what you re­ally wanted all along?

Given all the ad­vice I have put in this, you may think: If you’re so smart, then why aren’t you rich? I’ll leave it to you how to cope with this para­dox.