You want a simple answer?

Some pop psychology is nonsense. It may even be harmful.

Pop psychology may be popular, but some of it is founded on speculation, assertions, anecdotes and flimsy evidence.

We should even be careful with what's often accepted as common sense. 


  • 'Always be positive'. (Positivity is good, very good, but successful people also face reality. Their positivity isn't a cover for denial.)
  • 'Give yourself regular affirmations.' (Affirmations have limited value for people who don't need them. They are depressing for those who are already depressed - so harmful.)
  • 'The keys to success are dreaming big and being relentlessly focused on your goals'. (No, they are not the keys to success. Goals are useful, but action towards them is vital. So is a strategy for coping with setbacks.)

Some self-help books include wild extrapolations of genuine research that leave the original researchers horrified. (Remember the idea that Mozart's music improves learning? What about the notion that audiences absorb only 7 per cent of our message from the words we use - the rest being the way we deliver it?)

But there are gems...

These days many of the popular books or online articles dismissed as pop psychology are written by respected academics who have done extensive research including real-world trials. Others are practitioners who have examined the research thoroughly and can report what works in counselling, leadership, coaching or training.

Maybe we need a new word to help us separate what's useful from what isn't. Or, we could reserve pop psychology to describe unscientific, pseudo-psychology. That's my choice because pop psychology is already a pejorative term.

Let's not dismiss books and online articles just because they are written in an engaging non-academic style. I once bought a women's magazine with a cover promising an article about optimism. My expectations were not high, but that was just prejudice. To my surprise, the writer was obviously familiar with the research and in one page had come up with some practical ways to develop a realistic form of optimism. That article was not dumbing down research. It was the work of a skilled communicator.

Let's always ask ourselves what evidence the writer is drawing on. Is it objective research, stories from a few people, or no evidence - just assertions? Is the website we are visiting credible? 

A couple of cautions

Be very wary of diagnosing yourself based on self-help books or websites. Diagnoses are for clinicians and for disorders can be complex.

Be wary of simplistic solutions. Positive psychology (the science of thriving) has plenty of well-researched and practical ideas, but see the books and articles as a starting point, not an instant cure. Changing habits of thinking and behaving takes effort and time. Setbacks are almost inevitable.


I'm not a disinterested observer. Many of my blogs are about positive psychology and based on the peer-reviewed research. I've also written books and ebooks on the psychology of  thriving as well as articles for international academic journals reviewing the research on resilience. I'm a practitioner and firmly in the academic camp.