Psychological Self-Help

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once therapeutic skills and knowledge are “offered for sale” in the
open marketplace, it is tempting to popularize these services within
the entertainment industry, placing them in the hands of advertisers
and corporate investors. In the extreme, the results could be
something like the Jerry Springer Show, capitalizing on sensationalized
sex and relationship problems, or the Oprah Show, a seemingly
sincere and emotional one-hour production involving charming
personalities giving personal, relationship and spiritual advice. Most
observers will realize this is an hour-long smooth, polished commercial
to sell advice and products (books, media personalities, the next show,
etc.). The Oprah Program is certainly a more impressive love-in or
pep-rally type of show than your individual therapist could possibly
produce during a once-a-week one-hour therapy session. Do such
shows distract distressed people from getting professional help? Or,
does Oprah and the products she sells fix problems as well as
therapists? We don’t know. 
The television talk shows have been defended by many
psychologists, including me, because it was assumed (there was no
proof) that they increased the general public’s interest in and
awareness of psychological problems and provided some helpful
information about coping. Indeed, between 1970 and 1990 I thought
TV, like the early Phil Donahue shows, would be the major way to
provide practical, realistic psychosocial knowledge to everyone.
Somewhere things went awry. I still have hope—what better choice is
Now, Dr. Wilson (2003) argues that popularized and
commercialized pop-psychology degrades and distracts from the basic
scientific psychological methods and treatment. This quietly tolerated
growth industry (we don’t know, yet, if it is malignant) has quickly
expanded in 15-20 years to become huge, wealthy, and powerful. And
I agree with her that all this young pop-psychology, but especially the
trash, may have a down-side that could seriously harm its original
sources, i.e. therapists and the science of helping. Both the mental
health professions and the public should stay alert to the dangers. In
the mid-90’s there were about 150 shows offering advice each week.
They were popular and profitable, e.g. each Montel Williams’ show
costs about $50,000 to produce but it earns $400,000. It is estimated
that Oprah has earned about 800 million dollars, largely by offering
psychological advice, support, and motivation. Just because a show
makes money doesn’t prove it improves the listeners. But millions
would say they have benefited from Oprah’s shows and the books she
Even though any knowledgeable viewer can tell the TV shows are
primarily to entertain, hold attention and sell products, rather than to
pass on science-based psychological knowledge, the talk shows (and
self-help books) have certainly influenced millions of people’s ideas
about the nature of mental health, psychological treatment, who are
the experts, and so on. There are many personal opinions about the
content but virtually no objective data about the psychological impact
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