Posted On: Friday, 12 June 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Most self-help books contain scientifically non-verifiable advice of how to be successful in life dispensed by self-help gurus who became successful in life by dispensing advice that was --- scientifically non verifiable.

Over a period of time the Self-Help industry has created clichés that have often done as much harm as they have done good. I can't even begin to guess just how many entrepreneurs burn their hands trying out the whole 'follow your passion' cliché pushed out by self help books around the globe.

The power of positive thinking is another such cliché. Most self help books out there seem to recommend that readers should push negative thoughts out of their brains and focus on positive thoughts. It's one of those ideas that was articulately written in one self-help book; which sold a million copies because the audience liked the sound of it. Because it sold a million copies other self-help authors echoed the advice and very soon the entire self-help industry was pushing the cliché as an inevitable truth of the universe with very little science or evidence to support the hypothesis. 

In his rather scientific book, 59 seconds - Think a little, change a lot, Professor Richard Wiseman talks at-length the kind of negative impact these non-scientific feel-good hypothesis can have. He explains:

The problem is that the advice offered in some self-help books and courses is at odds with the results of scientific research. Take, for example, the power of positive thinking. Does the road to happiness really depend on people’s being able to simply push negative thoughts out of their mind? Actually, research suggests that such thought suppression may be far more likely to increase, rather than decrease, misery. In the mid-1980s Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner chanced upon an obscure but intriguing quote from Dostoyevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner decided to carry out a simple experiment to discover if this was true. Each person from a group of willing volunteers was made to sit alone in a room and told to think about anything, but NOT to imagine Dostoyevsky’s white bear. Everyone was then asked to ring a bell each time the banned bear sprang to mind. Within moments a cacophony of bells indicated that Dostoyevsky was right—attempting to suppress certain thoughts makes people obsess on the very topic that they are trying to avoid.

Richard goes on to explain how these ideas like forced positivity thinking (which are not tested, backed by science or any research what so ever) can actually end up doing more harm than good in the real world:

Other work has shown how this effect operates in real life, with one study, conducted by Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey at Hamilton College in New York State, providing a dramatic demonstration of how it influences people’s moods and self-esteem.8 Borton and Casey asked a group of people to describe their most upsetting thought about themselves. The researchers then had half of the group spend the next eleven days trying to push this thought out of their minds, while the remaining participants were asked to carry on with life as usual. At the end of each day, everyone indicated the degree to which they had dwelled upon their upsetting thought, and rated their mood, anxiety level, and self-esteem. The results were conceptually similar to those obtained by Wegner’s “white bear” experiment. The group attempting to actively suppress their negative thoughts actually thought more about them. Compared to those going about their business as usual, the suppression group also rated themselves as more anxious, more depressed, and having lower self-esteem. More than twenty years of research have demonstrated that this paradoxical phenomenon occurs in many different aspects of everyday life, showing, for example, that asking dieters not to think about chocolate causes them to consume more of it and asking the public not to elect fools to positions in government encourages them to vote for George Bush.

The point here isn't that forced positive thinking can do you more harm than good. The point here also isn't that 95% of all self help books out there are bullshit. The point I'm trying to make is completely different.

As geeks we have an intimate relationship with data. We deal with it in huge quantities; we build tools to visualize it; we manage it, we gather it, we find it and we draw conclusions from it. As professionals we are also fairly scientific. We probably exercise more cause-effect relationship and pattern finding in our lives than any other group of professionals on this planet. Every conversation we have with our compiler through our code is built on this cause effect relationship. Every bug we debug builds on the same foundation.

Like it or not science and data are two best tools that we as geeks have at our disposal - even when it comes to our own personal development; and if you aren't using the best tools at your disposal by questioning every self-help book, tip or advice that you come across; how are you really developing yourself?

If asking questions has been the time-tested way of growing for human species, just why do we let our self help gurus off the hook by accepting and following advice that is neither true nor scientifically verifiable? Why don't we ask for evidence and proof of effectiveness for every idea that we adapt in our lifestyle?

After all, the general appeal, popularity or feel good factor of a typical, safe, well accepted idea has no direct correlation to it's correctness; and if we as geeks and nerds don't question the validity of the ideas thrown at us, who will?

So the next time someone throws an idea that you think of adapting in your life - don't forget to check what the science and data surrounding that idea tells you. As a geek that's not just your responsibility; it's how you live you life.

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