Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The secret to self-help books

You are either one of two kinds of people in this world. Those who read self help books (or would consider doing so). You know, those books that help you become “better versions” of yourself in one way or another; more assertive, more time efficient, richer, just better. Or you're the other kind of person who doesn't understand why people would buy those kinds of books. I mean the stuff they tell you, it’s basically common sense right? Right.

If I asked you the best way to make friends what types of things would you suggest?

Perhaps you’d suggest being kind to people, listening to them intently, remembering their names, talking in terms of their interests. Maybe, make them feel important and other things along those lines? Well, those are an outline of the tips Daniel Carnegie gives in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Now some of you might be thinking – someone wrote a book on that? I could have guessed that. To some extent you're correct. Some of us could probably sit down and think about how to make friends and might be able to get to some of those points on that list mentioned. However, most people don’t sit down and think about these things. These self-help books are successful and they work because of the availability heuristic.

The availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) is a bias in which we are able to recall information based on how readily available they are to think about. For example, if I asked you to estimate the amount of marriages that end in divorce – you may think about all the people around you e.g. friends, family, work colleagues, who have been married and out of those which ended in divorce. We use the information available to us to make judgements. This principle can be applied to self-help books. If you have read a book like How to win friends and influence people and find yourself at a networking party wondering, how would I go about building a relationship with some important people – you will begin to think of those tips you have read in the book as a strategy to do so. This is because these tips would be readily available in your memory for use because of the availability heuristic we use. So, perhaps if you had sat and thought about how to make friends you could have thought of a similar list. But it’s unlikely you would’ve. Therefore, this information isn’t readily available to most people in such a situation. 

That isn’t to say there is no use in self-help books, depending on the type of person you are and how good the book is, I think they can be useful in helping you to make positive changes in your life or character.


Carnegie, D. (2010). How to win friends and influence people. Simon and Schuster.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.

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