Questionable “Self-Help” Products

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
August 18, 2004

Many tapes, books, and devices have been marketed with claims that they inspire people to function better mentally, improve relationships with others, relieve anxiety or depression, or achieve other desirable emotion-related goals. Gerald Rosen, Ph.D., former chairman of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Self-Help Therapies, has noted the following:

  • Although some of these materials may be helpful, most have not been tested for validity.
  • Many self-help materials are promoted with extravagant and ethically questionable claims.
  • The fact that a technique is useful as part of a therapy program does not mean it will work as a self-help measure. Self-help books are more likely to be helpful during periods of therapy than at other times.
  • Few self-help books offer protection against failing to comply with instructions. Should failure occur, readers may inappropriately blame themselves, become skeptical that they can be helped, and fail to seek professional help.

Subliminal Tapes

Thousands of videotapes and audiotapes purported to contain repeated messages are being marketed with claims that they can help people: lose weight, stop smoking, enhance athletic performance, quit drinking, think creatively, raise IQ, make friends, reduce pain, improve vision, restore hearing, cure acne, conquer fears, read faster, speak effectively, handle criticism, relieve depression, enlarge breasts, and do many other things. At least one company has offered subliminal tapes for children, including a toilet-training tape for toddlers. Many tapes contain music said to promote relaxation. Most are claimed to contain messages that are inaudible or barely audible, but some are barely or fully audible. Videotapes may feature images, said to be relaxing, combined with repeated visual messages shown so briefly that they cannot be seen at normal playing speed.

Many researchers have found that subliminal tapes provide no benefit to the user. One who tested tapes from several companies concluded that they contained no embedded messages that could conceivably influence behavior [1]. A research team tested volunteers for a study of tapes said to improve memory and self-esteem, but switched the tapes for half of the participants (to create a control group). Regardless of the tape used, about half of the volunteers claimed to achieve the results they were told to expect-but objective tests of memory and self-esteem showed no change [2]. A National Research Council committee has concluded that although many people claim that subliminal self-help tapes contribute to self-improvement, there is no scientific evidence to support such claims [3]. Thus there is no reason to believe that musical tapes with subliminal messages can do anything more for physical or mental well-being than listening to ordinary music. There is no scientific evidence that messages which cannot be heard are unconsciously or subconsciously perceived or can influence behavior [4].

Biofeedback Gadgets

Battery-operated skin-temperature monitors ($20 to $80) and devices that measure muscle or brain-wave activity ($200 to $400) have been marketed through the mail for home use. The Harvard Health Letter has warned that such devices have not been systematically evaluated and are likely to “have a short working life before they wind up in a closet or attic, gathering dust” [5]. Tests on home biofeedback devices claimed to help people manipulate their alpha waves have shown that the devices actually responded to the user’s eye movements or to interference from household electrical currents.

“Brain Wave Synchronizers”

Several companies have marketed gadgets that deliver flashing lights and sounds through modified eyeglasses and headphones. The devices are hazardous because flashing lights can trigger epileptic seizures in susceptible individuals, including some with no prior history of seizures. In 1992 the FDA received a complaint that a device of this type (the “Relaxman Synchroenergizer”) had caused a 21-year-old woman to have her first seizure. The device had been marketed with unsubstantiated claims that it could improve digestion and sexual function and control pain, habits, and addictions. In 1993 the FDA initiated a seizure of the manufacturer’s entire supply, which a judge subsequently ordered destroyed [6]. The FDA also stopped the marketing of “InnerQuest Brain Wave Synchronizer,” which had been claimed to provide diet control, stress relief, pain relief, and increased mental capacity [7]. The FTC and four state attorneys general recently settled complaints against Zygon International, Inc., which had claimed that users of “The Learning Machine” would learn foreign languages overnight, quadruple their reading speed, expand their psychic powers, build self-esteem, and replace bad habits with good ones [8]. There is no scientific evidence that any device can help people by synchronizing the two sides of the brain or increasing the frequency of alpha waves (a type of brain wave) [9].

Self-Help Instructional Programs

Many entrepreneurs use cable television infomercials to promise that their instructional materials can increase self-confidence, improve people’s performance, and bring success in various ways. A 1995 article in Forbes magazine noted that “inspirational” programs may serve a useful purpose if they enable someone to act more decisively [10]. However, the programs have not been validated by scientific studies and probably will not help most people who buy them.

Bach Remedies

These are homeopathically prepared (highly dilute) products said to have been developed during the 1930s by Edward Bach, a British bacteriologist and homeopath [11,12]. Ellon USA, Inc., of Lynbrook, New York, states that Bach “believed that the only way to cure illness was to address the underlying emotional causes of disease.” This company markets an “emergency rescue formula” for “calming and stabilizing emotions” and a line of 38 “flower remedies” said to alleviate negative emotions. The Rescue Remdy is also said to be “of great benefit to all animals, no matter how large or small” and “useful in easing the trauma of transplanted plants, falling flowers, or injured trees.” [11] The various remedies can be selected using Ellon’s 116-item “self-help questionnaire.” Someone who feels overwhelmed with work, for example, is advised to take the product called Elm, whereas someone who has strong opinions and is easily incensed by injustices is advised to use Vervain. An Ellon competitor describes its Rescue Remedy as “the one product you need to take care of all kinds of emergency emotional stress.” This company’s catalog states that this product “helps center the emotions until the crisis is past” and depicts it as useful for: (a) a woman under stress because her computer “froze,” (b) a mother coping with a cranky toddler, (c) the partner of a doubles tennis player who missed a few shots, (d) participants in a minor auto accident, and (e) a man racing to board a plane who suddenly realizes he forgot to pack his suit and left his keys and ticket at home. A few companies market additional products they say are based on Bach’s principles.

Flower remedies are also promoted through books, seminars, private practitioners, and telephone consultations. Some proponents state that the remedies can “balance out the body’s subtle energy fields” and “prevent disease before physical symptoms develop.” Of course, neither the theories nor the products make any sense.


Aromatherapy involves the use of aromatic oils from plants to affect mood or promote health. The oils are administered in small quantities through inhalation, massage, or other applications to the skin. Aromatherapy products include diffusers, lamps, pottery, candles, pendants, earrings, shampoos, skin creams, lotions, bath salts, and shower gels. The aromatic oils are alleged to contain hormones, antibiotics, and antiseptics, and to represent the “life force,” “spirit,” or “soul” of the plant. Some proponents claim that aromatherapy is a complete medical system that can “revitalize cells,” strengthen defense mechanisms, and cure the cause of disease. Others promote the products as useful for sharpening mental function or coping with stress. Although pleasant odors may enhance a person’s effort to relax, there is no scientific evidence that they can improve mental function or influence the course of any disease [13]. In 2000, in a false advertising case, a California court approved a consent agreement under which the manufacturer was barred from claiming that certain products would “sharpen the mind,” “freshen the mind,” “make the mind more alert,” “create sustained intellectual power,” “increase mental concentration, or “address the physical effects of stress.” [14]

  1. Merikle PM. Subliminal auditory messages: An evaluation. Psychology and Marketing 5:355-372, 1989.
  2. Greenwald AG, Spangenberg ER, Pratkanis AR. Double-blind tests of subliminal self-help audiotapes. Psychological Science 2:119-122, 1991.
  3. Bjork RA and others. In the Mind’s Eye. Enhancing Human Performance. Washington D.C., 1991, National Academy Press.
  4. Moore TE. Subliminal perception: Facts and fallacies. Skeptical Inquirer 16:273-281, 1992.
  5. Biofeedback. Harvard Medical School Health Letter 15(10):1­4, 1990.
  6. Stehlin IB. Unapproved devices seized. FDA Consumer 29(7):32-33, 1995.
  7. Unapproved ‘brain wave’ devices condemned after seizure reports. FDA Consumer 28(2):41-43, 1994.
  8. Four attorneys general, FTC reach settlement with Zygon International, manufacturer of “The Learning Machine.” NAAG Consumer Protection Report, March/April 1996, pp 10-11.
  9. Beyerstein BL. Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age. International Journal of Mental Health 19(3):27-36, 1990.
  10. Gubernick L, Mao P. The happiness hucksters. Forbes, Oct 9, 1995, pp 82-88.
  11. Vlamis G. Bach Rescue Remedy: Homeopathy in the home. Homeopathy Today 2(8):4-5 1982. Reprinted and distributed during the 1980s by Ellon, Inc.
  12. McCutcheon L. Bach flower remedies: Time to stop smelling the flowers? Skeptical Inquirer 19(4):33-35, 1995.
  13. Barrett S. Aromatherapy: Making dollars out of scents. Quackwatch, revised Aug 22, 2001.
  14. Horowitz DA. Judgment (pursuant to stipulation). National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc., v. Aroma Vera, Inc., et al. Superior Court No. BC183903. October 11, 2000.


Portions of this article appeared in the 7th edition of Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

This article was revised on August 18, 2004.