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Why Self-Help Quick Fixes Go Wrong

Why the fast-moving psychological how-to industry fails us.

Key points

  • Self-help does not linger with us because it is intellectual and not emotional learning.
  • Advice-giving is often wasted on the recipient because it is the viewpoint of the giver.
  • Individual psychological improvement may be superior to external interventions created by others because it maintains your integrity and choices.
Toa Heftiba/Unsplash
Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Psychological self-help and how-to information is everywhere—in blogs, articles, podcasts, radio shows, books, and magazine articles. Self-help is a big business. The quick-fix, how-to-do-it approach of self-help is popular and intellectually easy to grasp.

Self-Help Goals

The goal of self-help is to inform us of ways to alter behaviors. The thrust of the information is to follow steps—Step 1, 2, 3, and so on—to change a bad habit, find an appropriate mate, be more assertive, manage anger, etc. The steps are much like a cookbook recipe. An in-depth understanding of yourself is not the goal.

But, does self-help work? Or, is it just a cute, seductive, and faddish way to hook emotionally distressed readers or listeners who have psychological or interpersonal distress? Does it captivate people hungry for simple, rapid corrections?

Individual Psychological Enhancement vs. Institutional Interventions

In his book, The Quick Fix––Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, Jesse Singal writes that quick fix psychology cannot solve peoples’ and society’s problems. Singal is not a mental health professional or physician. He is a writer and podcaster, with a master's degree in public and international affairs.

The reason he makes his conclusion is that the focus of behavioral science has been “… toward improving and optimizing and repairing individuals rather than understanding how they are influenced by big, roiling forces largely beyond their control.”

Singal says quick fixes “… fail because they neglect to attend to deeper, more structural factors that are not easily remedied by psychological interventions.” Alternatively, he says the repair focus should shift to “… interventions targeting institutions rather than individuals.”

Examples of institutional or structural interventions are “nudges.” These enhance our good decision-making. Singal gives examples of nudges as “… text message reminders to take certain actions (vote, study, show up at court and so on), providing [people] with information that will make them feel like a social outlier if they make a certain decision [or] to enroll in a company 401(k) plan, to opt out rather than opt in …”

What Happens When We Forfeit Individual Decision-Making?

Are institutional decision-makers the superior choice for behavioral decision-making that aims to benefit us? Does the company I work for know better than I do what is best for me?

If we allow institutional decision-makers to reign, don’t we forfeit personal, individual decision-making, by capitulating to structurally-designed behavioral interventions?

Singal proposes external behavioral manipulation of people, rather than helping them achieve psychological growth and thereby control their own lives.

I propose a different way of looking at why self-help fails us and what we can do to more deeply understand what makes us tick as individuals. My ideas omit social and corporate institutional tweaking that smacks of autocratic totalitarian decision-making, in which “others” decide what is best for “us.” I opt for individual psychological understanding and improvement.

Intellectual Learning Doesn’t Cut It

In my opinion, self-help fails for several reasons. It is intellectual knowledge or advice that is given. After forty years of practicing psychiatry, I find people do not learn about their emotional and interpersonal lives intellectually. I discuss this in my book co-authored with Homer B. Martin, MD, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.

People discover who they are in an emotional context via introspection. Another person’s advice will apply only to him or her, but not to you.

The best self-help can do is pose questions for each person to ponder. Self-help advice fails to provide meaningful insights for people other than the advice-giver.

Self-understanding is crucial to gain insight that helps you with your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and interpersonal conflicts. Self-understanding is gained by discovering how to examine the workings of your own mind both when alone and when interacting with others. This requires dedicated mental effort.

Jen Theodore/Unsplash
Source: Jen Theodore/Unsplash

The Failure of Advice-Giving

Another reason self-help breaks down is that advice-giving is often a wasted effort for the advice-giver. People’s personalities are formed by their parents’ emotional conditioning of them that takes place by age 3.

Each of us believes our viewpoint of us, others, and the whole world is proper and is the only viewpoint in existence. Dr. Martin and I discovered people cannot entertain new advice—whether ideas, thoughts, or views—different from their own outlook, unless they embark on serious self-study.

This means if a piece of advice is a new perspective on an issue, we found another person will not alter their behavior or thinking after listening to you. Instead, they persevere with their own viewpoint or approach, unchanged by your input.

How to Look Deeply at Yourself While Preserving Personal Integrity and Choices

I base my suggestions for helping you psychologically in ways that preserve your individual integrity, knowledge, preferences, and decision-making. My suggestions come from experience during 40 years of psychodynamic psychotherapy with people. I also teach classes, and host book discussion groups in examining our book, Living on Automatic.

I discovered that all venues are helpful ways to discover the inner workings of your mind. To get to know yourself, first be reflective and discover how to examine yourself. Ask questions of yourself. See how your mind looks. Look at your upbringing. You may want to seek out a therapist to help you.

In Living on Automatic, Dr. Martin and I pose many questions to ask yourself as you take stock of who you are—how you think, react, respond, behave, and how you were raised and emotionally conditioned in your early life. See what your answers are to questions you raise during self-scrutiny.

Through practice devise how to assess both other people and yourself. Note the actions, expressed thoughts, attitudes, emotions, peculiarities, and so on of other people you encounter. As well, practice recognizing your own reactions to each person you meet. Write down your thoughts and reflections, if it helps to keep track and to digest what you are learning.

Begin by observing your family. How do they act toward you? In your childhood family, what expectations did they placed on you since you were young? How do you respond to individual relatives? You can then move on and inspect other interactions in your life—school, marriage, social life, friendships, work, and so on.

At first, you will be unaccustomed to such a deliberate way of expending mental effort. It will become easier over time. Ultimately, you will identify more about your mind’s inner workings. This process will not be quick or facile, but it will provide a deep and long-lasting awareness of how you tick. You will gain insight into early life experiences that continue to shape and control you. You will be the decider of options and choices you make that affect you. You will grow and psychologically better yourself.


Singal, Jesse (2021). The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.