March 24, 2015

When to Pass on “Expert” Advice.


Twice a year, my local library has a huge used book sale that I look forward to and results in me buying far more books than I originally planned.

This past weekend, I spent a lot of time perusing the various books on offer and noticed the huge health/wellness/self-help section that took up several bookcases. What struck me most was that nearly every title was promising something:

Look younger! Look thinner! Lose weight! Find happiness! (More than a couple of these books offered all these things and more.)

Another thing I noticed is that the vast majority of them were written by a celebrity or some self-proclaimed “expert.” (There where a lot of Drs., Ph.Ds, and other letters proceeding or following the author’s name.)

After thumbing through some of these books, I was shocked at how surprisingly similar they were. It made me wonder: Does any of this work? Furthermore, why are we as a culture so influenced by celebrity and expert endorsements when it comes to something as important as our physical and emotional well-being? 

Lest anyone read the above statements and think I am making mountains out of molehills, I am not.

While anecdotally speaking, many people scoff at the mere idea of ever taking advice from any kind celebrity—much less an actor—the fact is celebrities, be it actors, self-proclaimed health gurus, etc. impact us.

In his forthcoming book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? public policy professor, Timothy Caulfield, looks at this very phenomena. Per Caulfield, “Research tells us that our health decisions and goals are influenced both by celebrity culture and celebrity endorsement.”

The aforementioned Gwyneth Paltrow is arguably the best known celebrity for doling out various alternative health endorsements and advice, some of which has come under criticism for being scientifically unsound or even dangerous. (Most recently, Ms. Paltrow’s tips for having a “painless pregnancy” have come under fire by at least one well-known doctor.)

Paltrow is an easy target, but the truth is she is not alone. As my experience at my local library sale and even a quick search on Amazon has shown, there are many, many others out there willing to give advice. While much of the advice out there is sensible, such as eating right and exercising and getting plenty of sleep, some of it falls into the realm of pseudo-science and may actually be harmful, or at the very least, a waste of time. (For example, in his aforementioned book, Caulfield cites a number of celebrities who praise the benefits of colonics even though most medical experts say they do not have any significant value and even carry some very real risks including dehydration and even increase one’s risk for infection.)

Still, speaking as a former self-help junkie, the allure of such promises and “expert” advice is hard to resist.

The reason for it, I argue, goes well beyond the glitter and glamour of celebrity and hits at something even deeper: that is, it is comforting to have someone else make decisions for us.

In the words of one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, Mad Men’s Don Draper, “People want to be told what to do so badly they’ll listen to [practically] anyone.”

It goes without saying, but life doesn’t come with a manual. Sometimes life can be downright scary or at the very least, worrisome, especially when it involves making decisions that can impact our lives and others.

For example, when I was pregnant with my first child, I read a ton of parenting tomes and sought out a lot of expert advice. Even though I was loathe to admit it at the time, I was terrified of screwing up as a parent. Reading the words of these “experts” and being told exactly what to do in certain situations provided a level of comfort.

However, by time my second baby came around some five years later, I no longer relied so much on the various baby experts that peered out at me from the covers of various books. Indeed, I read no parenting books during my second pregnancy.

Granted, there was, and still is, the need for experts in the form of my children’s pediatrician, teachers, etc., but a lot of the solutions to various challenges comes from good old trial and error and seeing what works in our particular situation and what does not.

It’s the same now with my health. I’ve tried a lot alternative therapies and diets both on the advice of my health care professionals and on my own. Some have worked and some have not.

I have no doubt I may continue to test out new things, too, but I like to think at least that I am over believing that any celebrity or self-proclaimed expert holds all the answers. While it’s okay to be curious about a certain therapy, diet, etc., it’s important to preface such things with a healthy dose of skepticism, as well as see what the actual science says about it including possible risks and benefits. It may not be as glamorous as getting advice from a glossy celebrity, but I prefer it that way.



Self-Help is Bad for Us.


Author: Kimberly Lo

Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/TheeErin


Facebook is in talks with major corporate media about pulling their content into FB, leaving other sites to wither or pay up if we want to connect with you, our readers. Want to stay connected before the curtain drops? Get our curated, quality newsletters:

Read 1 Comment and Reply

Read 1 comment and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Kimberly Lo  |  Contribution: 55,235