The Self-Help Psychologist Is In

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Many of us who try to live an examined life find something lacking, though usually nothing so serious that it requires professional help. This has given rise to an entire genre of books aimed at indulging our urge to open up our own psyches and tinker with the wiring. But the genre’s lack of scientific rigor drives University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman to distraction.

“If you apply [the standards of self-help publishing] to the drug store,” Wiseman says, “you go in and say ‘Oh, I’ve got a headache, and ah well, none of this stuff is tested, but what the hell, I’ll just try the green one and see if that works,’ people would think that’s utterly absurd and unacceptable.”

So Wiseman has written a self-help book of his own, a collection of techniques built on findings from academic research in psychology.

“We are far more like somebody watching ourselves than somebody in charge of ourselves.”

Richard Wiseman

Call it evidence-based self-help. The book is called 59 Seconds, for the time it’s supposed to take to practice each of the bits of advice Wiseman lays out within: Looking to seduce someone? Take your date to an amusement park or on a vigorous run, for research shows that attraction increases along with heart rate. Think someone’s prone to telling you white lies? Correspond more with them by e-mail, for research shows people are less likely to prevaricate when there’s a written record that could trip them up later.

Wiseman has agreed to answer some questions here about his new book and his research.

Q.

So much of the book seems to be based on the idea that you can trick yourself into being more attractive, happier, more successful. A simple touch on someone’s upper arm makes them more responsive to requests, for example; smiling will trick your brain into being happier; being conscious of the amount of exercise you get just walking around going about your everyday life can make you healthier. Are we not as cohesive in our personality as we imagine ourselves to be? Are we more changeable than we think?

A.

Change is traditionally very difficult. Most people will have already failed in their New Year’s resolutions by now. But I think that’s mostly because people are trying the wrong things. I think some of these techniques are powerful because there’s a particular type of psychology at play. What it shows is that we do have a lack of insight into why we do certain things. We think we eat unhealthy foods for one reason, but it turns out we do it for another. We don’t have much insight into our motivations, which is totally consistent with the mind/brain research coming out now, saying that conscious thought has to be the result of brain activity over which we don’t have very much control. We are far more like somebody watching ourselves than somebody in charge of ourselves. Some of these techniques bypass that conscious awareness and just play straight to the idea of: “this is why you do something, and this is what you can do to change it.”

Q.

Much of the surprising research in the book came from experiments, in the lab and in the real world. Among the experiments you’ve conducted, what’s your favorite?

A.

The wallet study. We dropped 200 or so wallets, and tried to see if certain types of content would make people more likely to return them. That was funny, in part because it turns out dropping wallets is an absolute nightmare. It’s a social psychology nightmare, because you have to drop them quite a distance from one another. You don’t want someone walking down the street, finding five wallets. So you have to walk about half a mile between each drop, and timing that by 200, it turns into quite a drawn-out study.

And then you discover how difficult it is to drop a wallet these days. You drop a wallet, and you walk off, and then there’s someone behind you going “excuse me, you dropped this wallet.” And you’re, kind of, “Back off, it’s science. Put it back exactly where I dropped it.” And the drop zones are very carefully calculated, so that they’re not too close to bins and letterboxes, so you’ve got to walk around the block and drop it again, and if the same person sees you, they think you’re insane. So those things were quite good fun. I dropped one wallet, and sort of stood nearby to see if anyone picked it up. A policeman came along, picked it up, looked at it, walked over to a litter bin and dropped it inside.

Q.

Is there an experiment you wish you could do but, for whatever reason, can’t?

A.

Oh, those occur to me every day! I just tweeted out something about how I was considering starting an institute for unethical studies, and is anyone interested in participating. And loads of people got back to me and said, “Oh yeah! Let me know what you’re doing.” Because today it’s so hard to get anything past the ethics boards, compared to the good old days, when you could just electrocute people and call it science. You can hardly do anything these days!

What would I want to do? I quite like the idea of the random giving of animals. There’s a study where they took two groups of people and randomly gave people in one group a dog. But I’d quite like to replicate that with a much wider range of animals — including those that should be in zoos. I like the idea of signing up for a study, and you get home and find you’ve got to look after a wolf … .

Q.

Or a Tasmanian Devil…

A.

Exactly! Or a giraffe. I think there’s a lot more fun to be had in psychology. We’ve kind of sucked the fun out of it a little bit. I’m a huge fan of Stanley Milgram‘s work. He was just so good at seeing stuff that was relevant, and yet, these really funny studies.

Q.

You write in the book about research showing that “retail therapy” is a poor road to happiness. A recent survey found that Americans are shopping less and doing more activities with friends and family. Could the recession be making us happier?

A.

The research on happiness shows almost no relationship between income and happiness, after a certain point, and I think that’s the key issue. You need to have enough money to live reasonably comfortably, but after that it doesn’t really matter. So if people are losing their jobs, and that’s giving them stress on their relationships, and if their relationships break up, that’s another source of unhappiness. For that group it’s clearly a problem. For other people–maybe one partner in a couple has lost their job, so it’s a reduction in income, but not catastrophic — I actually think you may see an income in happiness. You’re not buying so much, you’re spending more time with friends. In that sense, a recession might be good for us.

Q.

What are you working on now?

A.

I do quite a lot online, coming up with viral videos and other things. The blog is starting to take some nice shape now. A lot of my focus is going to be online. It represents a very interesting challenge.

Q.

As a psychologist, what makes the Internet interesting to you?

A.

It’s bringing together groups of people who I think would have had trouble finding each other in the past. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not so good, but I find it fascinating. In terms of things like Facebook-I’m a big fan of self-presentation theory, Erving Goffman‘s idea that we have a private, backstage self, and a public, front-stage self, and of course Twitter and Facebook and blogs are all an extension of that front-stage presentation. And what I find funny is how many people are just so bad at hiding what they actually think of themselves. You know, on Facebook, some people can’t stop posting self-taken photos of themselves looking beautiful, as if that’s going to impress anyone.

Q.

What’s your take on the debate over the strength of social networking connections, and their ability to have a real impact on our lives?

A.

The number of close friends hasn’t gone up over the years. I think what’s changed is the geography of those friends. You may have close friends who aren’t physically that close to you. It is the case that people have extended networks of more shallow networks, but I guess I find it more interesting in the dissemination of information, just how quickly information spreads among those sub-groups, and gets them to come to events, where so many people are meeting up face to face in ways they weren’t several years ago. So my hope would be groups would be getting together more, at some point, which leads to more interaction.

Q.

You set up the book by recounting a lunch you once had with a friend named Sophie, who was sort of unhappy at the time, and challenged you to come up with some self-help techniques backed by academic psychology. Now that the book’s out, is she any happier?

A.

[laughs] It’s funny you should ask that — Sophie’s kind of vanished, and I’m not sure how to find her! She’s gone to India. That meeting was quite a while ago, probably three and a half years ago. I’ve tried to find her. She actually doesn’t know yet that she’s sort of the catalyst for the book. So as soon as she comes back from traveling, she’ll probably sue me – no, no, no, she’ll get a copy.

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  1. Tristan says:

    Does anyone have a link to the study where they gave a random group of people a dog? I’d love to read about it, and any interesting findings. Did that make it in to the book?

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  2. Mike B says:

    You know because of your wallet study I’ll now have to assume that any picture I find in a wallet has been planted there to manipulate my emotions and therefore feel justified in seizing the cash because the dropper has insulted me by assuming I would just take his wallet w/o manipulation.

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  3. Ron says:

    This guy is a Wise man!

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  4. Min says:

    #2, agreed, I’d do the same thing. And I’m one of those very people with a baby picture planted in my wallet!

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  5. Max says:

    Why not just buy one of those cookie cutter Dr. Phil — Rev. Phil volumes or his son’s or wife’s? He always has the perfect answer to everything!

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  6. AaronS says:

    The danger with reading such books is NOT that it won’t do you any good–I’m sure it will allow you to accomplish more. No, the problem is that it can make you cynical…when someone makes a request and touches your upper arm.

    I read one time that guys, when the hold hands, tend to have the back of their hand (knuckles) facing forward, while women tend to have their palms foward when holding hands. Well, I told this little bit of science to my brother…and I don’t know how many times at church services, when called upon to “take the hand of the person beside you,” that we have almost either come to blows…or laughed out loud…at our efforts to “be the man.”

    It’s good to know these things, but once you do, it’s kind of like knowing the tricks of a car salesman–you just walk around the lot with your guard a mile high, not giving anyone a real opportunity, no matter how sincere they are.

    If that makes sense.

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  7. patsyanne says:

    That thing about smiling to trick yourself into feeling happy really works. I discovered it years ago but can’t always remember it when I need to. Same with the physical activity. I want this book…I have already tried all the hard stuff! And I’m a psychotherapist. Go figure.

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  8. Sandy says:

    There is a book called Instant Happiness with the Energy Exchange Technique. The technique itself is very simple, takes under a minute to do and is miraculous how well it works whenever you use it. I’ve been using it for years and it’s never failed.

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