Open Mike

Welcome to Open Mike

Open Mike is a forum for readers on a specific topic that will change every one or two months. The forum includes Your Turn, an opportunity for readers to share anecdotes and opinions related to the chosen topic. Conversely editors and writers select the most interesting entries and post them the following month In This Corner!

For our readers who don't have time to write but want to share their opinions, Open Mike also features a Three-Minute Survey - not the typical, simplistic Internet poll, but a set of five questions related to the monthly topic. When the survey is completed, we will publish Survey Says: a brief article analyzing the results.
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Survey Says:

Results from our February - July 2002
Three-Minute Survey

We love them, we hate them, we love them… Contradictory results from our survey on self-help books.

After the February 2002 article by Jandro on self-help books, we put together a survey to find out what it is about self-help books that makes them so popular. The survey, alas, didn't help us figure this out. We learned a few things, yes, about who reads these books, and whether they like them or not. But when it came time to vote for self-help books as 'my number one' choice for relationship insights, readers had other choices in mind.

Before jumping in to compare results, it's worth noting that men, who normally respond to surveys less than women do, felt particularly averse to this survey. The ratio of female to male respondents was an unusually high 8:1. Perhaps men who hate self-help books simply decided to pass on the survey, as a way of expressing their disgust?

In any case, of those who did respond, three-fourths of women and a slightly higher proportion of men claimed to have read at least one self-help book, and often many more than just one. This would appear to contradict the conventional wisdom that claims men do not read self-help books as much as women do. Possible—but again, it may just be our male sample was not representative. Another interesting fact is that, among women above thirty years old, the percentage who had read 'many books' was almost 100%, and this was also the case for married women.

So, what do people think of the self-help genre? Opinions tended to fall primarily into those who 'like' it and those who feel neither good or bad about it. Two-fifths of women think these books are good, useful guides, and about one-tenth said they 'loved' them. Less than a third of men expressed a positive opinion, and none admitted to loving self-help books, but another third felt ambivalent. About twice as many men as women had negative opinions. A handful of women and men hated the genre enough to suggest book-burning, and it is interesting to note that these radical outliers were always younger than thirty years old.

The third question in our survey asked respondents who had read at least one book to tell us whether they felt their relationships had improved as a result of reading the book. Women had a more positive reaction: two-thirds claimed to have gotten at least 'a little' help, whereas only two-fifths of men felt the same way. Still—this would appear to show that enough people find these books helpful to explain their popularity. Or so we thought, until we looked at the last question.

The bottom-line question was to ask where respondents would turn to when in need of relationship advice. Given the popularity of these books, and the proportion of respondents who find them at least somewhat useful, we expected to see a large proportion responding: self-help books. Instead, both men and women favor 'friends and family' or 'myself' by large margins (five-to-one for women, and eight-to-one for men) over self-help books, therapy, or write-in advice columns. What gives?

When we looked at those women who had claimed to love self-help books, only one out of six would choose a book as the primary source of advice, and for men, only twenty percent of those who said the books were 'good' would choose a book over a friend or themselves.

When choosing between friends or working things out themselves, women tend to be evenly split, whereas two of every three men prefer to work things out on their own.

In the end, whether it's because they prefer asking friends, or sorting things out in a dark, quiet room by themselves, neither men or women seem to think of self-help books when a relationship crisis arises. And yet, how come so many of them have read so many self-help books? Are they lying to us? Are they picking up these books for educational purposes? Or, is it possible that turning to a friend, or to oneself, is often ineffective, and people are then forced to look to other alternatives? Yes: Maybe the popularity of self-help books is that—unlike fickle friends—they are always readily available on that bookshelf.

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