Reading non-evidence-based self-help statements encourages victim-blaming toward people with depression, according to a series of studies published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. The researchers behind the studies suggest that the efficacy of self-help materials should be continually examined.
Self-help resources can be a positive addition to mental health treatment. These tools can be guided by a professional, such as a cognitive-behavioral therapy session, or referred to alone like a self-help book. But some professionals worry that popular self-help tools that have not been empirically tested may unintentionally harm those they claim to help.
An example is positive self-statements that are based on the “law of attraction,” or the idea that your thoughts attract what happens to you. Notably, some of these materials imply that happiness is a choice. Study authors June Chun Yeung and Vivian Miu-Chi Lun proposed that these non-evidence-based self-help materials inadvertently create a victim-blaming mentality directed at individuals with depression.
“If being happy is assumed to be an intentional choice,” Yeung and Lun write, “and everyone can presumably lift their mood through internalizing positive self-statements, blaming a person who is depressed becomes justifiable.” Crucially, this stigma might prevent people who suffer from depression from seeking help.
The researchers conducted a series of four studies. In an initial study, they validated a scale that measures victim-blaming on people with depression with items like, “Depressed people have inherited weaknesses.” They additionally found that the endorsement of positive self-statements was associated with a greater tendency toward victim-blaming.
Next, an experimental study had participants divided into one of two conditions. Subjects either read a passage describing evidence for the effectiveness of positive self-statements or read a passage describing mixed evidence for their effectiveness. Those who read evidence in favor of positive self-statements later demonstrated more victim-blaming compared to those who read mixed evidence about positive self-statements. This suggests that those who were not made aware of the mixed evidence surrounding positive self-statements were more likely to place blame on victims of depression.
A third study found that reading non-evidence-based self-help statements led to more victim-blaming than reading other statements — although the effect failed to meet statistical significance. A later, more highly powered study did find a significant effect for this. Reading a passage containing non-evidence-based self-help statements led to more victim-blaming than reading a paragraph containing self-compassion statements that incorporated mindfulness, acceptance, and self-kindness.
Finally, a meta-analysis revealed a significant effect for unfounded self-help statements on victim-blaming across all studies. Yeung and Lun say that their study points to the dangers of blindly incorporating self-help materials. “The present research is an example of how attempts of applying psychological concepts to solve real-life issues may backfire in some situations.”
Rather than rejecting self-help tools altogether, the researchers call for more transparency concerning the constraints of their effectiveness. “In light of our present findings, we recommend that empirical-based descriptions about the limits of this kind of ‘over-the-counter’ self-help material should be provided to all interested users,” the authors write, “and to achieve this end, continuous research effort should be made on examining the efficacy of these self-help materials.”
The study, “Uncritical use of non-evidence-based self-help materials induces victim-blaming on depressed individuals”, was authored by June Chun Yeung and Vivian Miu-Chi Lun.