Excerpt from SHAM by Steve Salerno, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

by Steve Salerno

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 288 pages
    Sep 2006, 288 pages

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Topping it all off are the miscellaneous do-it-yourself "personal-enhancement" products and "revolutionary new technologies!" sold via infomercial. Dale Beyerstein, a philosophy professor who has written extensively on pseudoscience, argues that the customary formula calls for taking a modicum of legitimate research and "piggybacking" onto it–that is, extending and misapplying its conclusions in a way that's just plausible enough to skirt criminal sanctions by the Federal Trade Commission or the U.S. Postal Service. The hubris of some of these pitches–not to mention the contempt for the consumer–almost defies description. For a while during the 1980s, a company called Potentials Unlimited was selling subliminal audiotapes to cure deafness.

Which begs the question: What has America gotten in return for its $8.56 billion investment?

The answer: There is no way of knowing. So much money, so few documented results.

Yes, SHAM gurus have no trouble producing the obligatory testimonial letters, the heartrending anecdotal stories of women who found the courage to leave abusive men or men who found the courage to face up to the demons within. But in any meaningful empirical sense, there is almost no evidence–at all–for the utility of self-help, either in theory or in practice. There's only one group of people we can prove benefit from the books: the authors themselves.

For example, as Martin Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association, told Forbes in 2003, though some of Tony Robbins's preachments may be worth listening to, they remain altogether untested–despite the unambiguously rosy claims made for Robbins's material and the quasi-scientific pretense of the material itself.

Actually, that's not quite true. A growing body of evidence challenges SHAM's ability to do what it says. For one thing, despite all the talk of personal empowerment, limitless potential, and a world in which glasses are always at least half full, Americans have become ever more dependent on chemical modification. Almost four decades after Thomas A. Harris's landmark self-help tract I'm OK–You're OK, we live in a culture in which some of the most profitable products made are named Prozac, Paxil, and Xanax. Evidently a great many Americans don't think they're all that "OK." In the final analysis, it's not the thousands of seminars or millions of books with their billions of uplifting words that Americans seem to count on to get them through the day. It's the drugs.

That's no great shock to Archie Brodsky, a senior research associate for the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Harvard Medical School. "Psychotherapy has a chancy success rate even in a one-on-one setting over a period of years," observes Brodsky, who coauthored (with Stanton Peele) Love and Addiction. "How can you expect to break a lifetime of bad behavioral habits through a couple of banquet-hall seminars or by sitting down with some book?"

Brodsky alludes to twelve-step recovery meetings, which don't often feature celebrity speakers or hordes of pricey ancillary products but do have a strong and loyal following nonetheless. The twelve-step movement developed as an outgrowth of Alcoholics Anonymous and now encompasses programs for a staggering range of problems, whether compulsive shopping, or loving too easily or too much, or overeating. These days, if it's a problem for someone, somewhere, it's a treatable disorder. And a support group likely exists for it. At the apex of the Recovery phenomenon, in 1992, American Demographics reported that twelve million Americans belonged to at least one of the nation's five hundred thousand support-group chapters.

Excerpted from Sham by Steve Salerno Copyright © 2005 by Steve Salerno. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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