In the weeks since the tragedies at the James Ray self-help retreat in Sedona, Arizona, I've written pieces for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post documenting the social psychology of the self-improvement industry. It's criminal how a motivational leader so misled people seeking personal transformation.
But when readers comment on my pieces, many seem to suggest that those who seek self-improvement are stupid, disorganized or at the end of their rope in life. Indeed, this is the conventional wisdom: That people who seek out self-help books have problems. That self-help readers are the kinds of people who watch infomercials at 3 a.m. while eating a supersized bag of Doritos. That self-help readers are unemployed, in their underwear, drooling on themselves. And because they are so pathetic, they make stupid choices like following James Ray.
Thing is, that's not true. Self-help is about self-control, and the people who are best at personal control tend to be the affluent, educated and proactive types. And the best of self-help--the virtue- and value-based self-help literature going back more than 150 years, including the writings of M. Scott Peck, Samuel Smiles and yes, even Dale Carnegie, not the cult-like mind-control of James Ray--is geared toward just those Type-A go-getters.
As I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the self-help industry, I found that self-help books are practical advice guides for self-control. Personal change is hard--and it takes a lot of work. Sometimes it's about controlling personal behavior, while other times it's about controlling your social life, workplace or romantic situation, but "succeeding" at self-help means attaining fulfillment through self-control.
The people who seek self-control are the ones who value it. And researchers find that self-control is a learned skill that increases with each previous success. But here's the kicker: Already having self-control is a large factor in gaining more of it.
So who tends to buy self-help books and attend self-help seminars? Those with enough self-control and success to value it--and want even more. Here's why:
Self-Efficacy: There's a difference between feeling good about yourself (self-esteem) and feeling proud of successful changes you've made in your life (self-efficacy). People who believe they can change are more likely to be able to actually do so, and they will also be happier people, researchers find. And unless you think your goals can be achieved, what's the point in trying? Self-help readers have a high sense of self-efficacy.
Demographics: Middle-aged, educated, affluent people have the self-efficacy, the social support system, and also the resources to change their behavior. Midlife is a time where people are most in control of various spheres of their life --family, career, financial--so they are free to seek control in other aspects of their lives. (For more on this, see O'Donoghue and Rabin's contribution on "Self-Awareness and Self-Control" in Time and Decision: Economic and Psychological Perspectives on Intertemporal Choice)
But education and affluence are crucial to self-control: Those who are in an extremely powerless status are more likely to be unhappy and feel directed by forces outside their control. Inversely, people who are equipped with a sense of power and self-efficacy are less likely to feel overwhelmed, even in situations of high demand.
Indeed, studies repeatedly find that children from poorer homes do worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes, perhaps because of a less predictable environment among the less well-off, where one thinks in the short term because the long term is too up-in-the-air.
Either you got it, or you don't: And if that class statement isn't depressing enough, one of the most frustrating elements of self-control research is that people who demonstrate self-control skills are more likely to be self-controlled in the future. Either you have self-control or you don't: First, self-controlled behavior builds on previous patterns of behavior, and second, those who have self-control are more likely to value it and seek to increase their abilities. Just as an inability to control one's life can lead to anxiety and depression, so too does a belief in one's ability to master events foster an optimistic outlook on the future.
This isn't to say that self-control can't be learned, but simply that by the time one reaches adulthood, some people have more and some people have less. Self-help readers tend to be self-controlled people--who want more of it. Commitment to self-control requires cognitive and economic resources, and those who already have some of these resources are more likely to continue with a future commitment-be it through a purchase of a self-help book, joining a group or another level of commitment strategy.
So next time you knock self-help readers as silly or beneath you, think again. If you're so self-controlled and successful, maybe you might consider some quality self-improvement, too.