DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Regulating Self-Help, Part 2: What Is A Benefit?

Last time we saw that, if we wanted to determine whether, and how much, to regulate personal development, we'd need to weigh the costs of self-development activities against their benefits.

This, as I said, raises yet another question:  who is qualified to say whether someone benefited from a personal growth practice?  In other words, should we trust the subjective opinion of the person who did the activity?  Or, should we decide whether they got value based on some set of objective criteria?

For example, if you come back from a meditation retreat and say you got a lot out of it, should we trust your judgment?  Or, should we only agree with you if certain objectively measurable facts exist -- for instance, if your heart rate is lower than it was before you went to the retreat; if you've had fewer arguments with your spouse than before; or something along those lines?

Trusting The Consumer

Generally, in Western society, we trust the individual consumer's judgment, and refrain from regulating, where the activity isn't obviously harming any third parties -- even if the activity seems ridiculous or distasteful to many.

For instance, I don't need a permit to listen to Christian Death Metal, and people who play it need not pass a licensing exam.  The majority of the population may hate this music, but the government doesn't regulate it, because my listening to it doesn't injure anyone else.  (I mean, some take offense at its existence, but the law doesn't usually care about that kind of "injury.")

As I see it, meditation retreats, and other personal development practices that don't obviously hurt third parties, should get the same treatment.  Sure, some may think meditation is weird or a waste of time.  But those people's distaste alone isn't a good argument for regulation.  I think most people will be on board with this, at least.

What Are The Exceptions?

So, the question becomes:  when should we depart from this standard?  When should we disregard the consumer's judgment, and demand objective proof of the practice's effectiveness?  Let's look at a few possibilities critics of personal growth sometimes raise.

1.    The Price Is Too High. Like I said earlier, critics often focus on what they see as the exorbitant prices of products, seminars, and so on.  One much-discussed example is this ABC News piece about Joe Vitale's offer, for $5,000, to take people for a ride in his Rolls-Royce and teach them how to attract wealth.

I'm deliberately using this example because it seems like a "hard case" -- I wouldn't personally spend $5,000 to do this.  But I think we need to look a little deeper to determine whether it's worthy of regulation.

To some, it doesn't matter how many people who take a ride with Vitale might think they got their money's worth.  The government should ban this practice, order Vitale to lower his prices, or at least require his customers to show, to the government's satisfaction, that they won't starve if they fork over the $5,000, and they aren't psychologically impaired in some way.

The assumption is that, objectively, there's no way this consultation with Vitale could possibly confer $5,000 worth of benefits, whether financial or emotional.  Anyone who thinks otherwise must be delusional or ill-informed.

Should We Crack Down On Vacations?

But let's think for a moment about another thing people often spend lots of money on:  vacations.  Sad, perhaps, but true:  some people spend thousands of dollars to fly their families to an exotic locale, stay in hotels for a week or two, eat out, and go to museums.

Is there an objectively measurable benefit to this?  Is there reliable evidence that people make more money, become less likely to get divorced, or have lower heart rates after taking a vacation involving air travel and luxury hotels?  (Remember, I mean an expensive vacation of the kind well-paid professionals take, not a "staycation.")

I think the honest answer to one or both questions is no.  And yet, nobody suggests psychologically screening people who want to go to the Bahamas.  Moreover, at least in the U.S., no license is required to be a travel agent.

In other words, we don't second-guess people's decisions to take expensive vacations, or assume that they couldn't possibly have received enough value from their trip to justify what they paid.

To be sure, if overhead luggage falls on somebody's head in a plane, or they get food poisoning from a hotel restaurant, they can use the tort system, i.e., sue the responsible party.  But that's true of Joe Vitale too -- for example, if someone rode in Vitale's limo and it crashed, they could sue him for negligence.  Regulation, commonly understood, is different from tort law, in that it tries to prevent harm rather than compensate for it -- through licensing requirements, safety inspections and so forth.

So what's the difference? Is it that Vitale and some other self-development teachers base their approaches on spiritual-sounding or "woo-woo" ideas?  I'll open that up for discussion.

Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Last time we saw that, if we wanted to determine whether, and how much, to regulate personal development, we’d need to weigh the costs of self-development activities against their benefits.

    Things aren’t regulated based on a cost-benefit analysis, but on a harm analysis. If 90% of people like a new drug but 10% of them die, the drug is not available for sale–period.

    Many LGATs use coercive persuasion (aka “mind control”) that is harmful in and of itself, let alone when combined with an aggressive sales pitch. The FTC routinely regulates deceptive marketing and advertising practices and therefore this falls within the U.S. government’s purview already.

    Why are you ignoring the actual issues, Chris? Of course people can buy whatever they want…as long as the product isn’t harmful or uses false or misleading advertising or straight-up mind control. I haven’t seen anyone claim we should regulate Joe Vitale’s Phantom Bullshit Ride–this is yet another strawman/red herring. Why not address the actual issues here? Psychosis, suicide, bipolar, manic episodes, etc.–how many occur as a direct result of overly intense weekend workshops/LGATs? Why won’t you even ask the ******* question?

  2. One more thought–quite honestly, you are starting to look like a cult apologist.

  3. Hi Duff — of course we use a cost/benefit analysis in determining whether and the extent to which we regulate something. Look at driving. Despite the number of deaths each year on the highways, the government does not ban driving, which would be the result if we did what you call a “harm” analysis. Instead, the government has weighed that cost against the many benefits of allowing people to drive cars and reached a compromise with the driver’s licensing system and various other driving regulations.

    In the case of drugs, I agree with your example that the FDA would probably ban a drug known to kill 10% of the people who take it (or lawsuits would render it prohibitively costly), but as I think you know, the FDA permits many drugs with very harmful side effects to be sold — knowing full well that, despite whatever warning labels are on those drugs, some number of people who take them will be injured or die. The reason is that many more people will also benefit from the same drugs and the benefit (in the FDA’s perception at least) outweighs the cost.

    It is true that the FTC has the authority to sue over allegedly misleading marketing practices, but there are many who believe the FTC should have specific rules for, or at least pay more attention to, “self-help gurus,” including this US Senator (notice how she’s talking about marketing and pricing, not just safety regulations regarding sweat lodges or something like that):

    Also, as I think you know, authors like Ehrenreich and Salerno talk a lot about how life coaches are unlicensed and allegedly charge too much — not because coaches are likely to inflict psychological or physical injuries (both of their books came out before the Sedona incident) but because they allegedly don’t provide real value to their customers. So, I disagree that the pricing issue is a red herring.

    I understand that you are passionate about psychological injuries happening to people at self-development workshops, and that is a subject I am going to address in this series.

  4. As for whether I look like a “cult apologist,” I can’t comment on that, because I don’t know what a cult apologist, or even a self-help apologist for that matter, looks like. In fact, I’m not even sure any exist. By my count, the number of books/articles answering the personal growth critics’ claims about workshops, or anything else, is zero.

  5. there are many who believe the FTC should have specific rules for, or at least pay more attention to, “self-help gurus,” including this US Senator

    Senator Amy Klobuchar says in her letter to the FTC:

    I am writing specifically about the possibility that false or misleading marketing may have played a role in this incident [the Sedona sweat lodge].

    This is not calling for additional regulation, nor additional rules, just applying existing rules to protect United States citizens from death-by-seminar, primarily so there isn’t another Sweatgate.

    Senator Klobuchar also states:

    Given the safety issues at stake, I strongly urge the FTC to take a close look at the marketing and advertising practices of Mr. Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” programs and similar activities offered by other individuals and companies. Stated simply, consumers should not be lured into purchasing unsafe and potentially deadly products or services based on false or misleading claims.

    This is not at all what you are representing in this article. You focus on benefits, not on harm, which is a red herring because nobody is claiming that individuals should not be allowed to benefit from self-help products or services. Your argument around Vitale’s Phantom Mastermind program is a strawman because no critic that has attacked this scam as a ridiculous scam has argued that this needs federal investigation or is necessarily illegal in some way.

    Critics are saying that people—specific people, some of whom are currently dead—have been harmed by some very specific other people who sell sell self-help products and services. Who is qualified to say whether someone was harmed from a personal growth practice? Anyone who is harmed, that’s who.

    despite whatever warning labels are on those drugs

    That’s exactly it. There are no warning labels on personal development seminars, and seminar companies are not liable and/or they fight lawsuits with on-retainer legal teams ready to stand by for that purpose, rather than changing the seminar to be safer. Labels on bottles are a form of government regulation, as are the recent FTC regulations that diet & exercise informercials can’t say “results not typical” when presenting testimonials, but must present typical results of their products.

  6. Well, the senator asks the FTC to “take a close look” at self-help marketing practices, and that isn’t very specific — it could mean enacting new rules, targeting specific companies, or something else. She may not even be sure of what she’s asking for — at this stage, it seems to me, public discussion has been centered around the vague issue of whether there “should be more regulation” (as in this Dan Harris piece — — and this piece from Bizsayer —

    I think that when Ray’s trial begins and he’s back in the public eye, we will start seeing more specific ideas from politicians, the FTC and other agencies, and the media. I’m bringing this issue up perhaps a little “early,” because I think this is a “calm before the storm” when we can actually have a sober, non- sensationalized, discussion of these issues.

    To be clear, I’m not claiming that critics are saying “nobody should be allowed to benefit from self-help.” I’m saying that, in any decision about whether and how to regulate, the benefit of the activity must be taken into account, as well as the cost. Why? Because regulations affect both (1) people who do the activity and inflict NO harm; and (2) people who do the activity and DO cause harm. Remember, I’m talking about rules governing FUTURE conduct — not how people harmed in the past (e.g., the Sedona victims) should be compensated.

    For example, suppose the government banned all personal growth seminars (however defined) in light of the Sedona incident. (Just an illustration for simplicity purposes — I’m not saying this in particular will happen.) This would affect not only unscrupulous or negligent seminar leaders, but seminar leaders whose workshops would otherwise go off without a hitch.

    If you think seminars have NO benefit and are all a fraud, you aren’t going to lose sleep over this. The cost of allowing seminars [edit] obviously outweighs the benefit because the benefit is zero. On the other hand, if you think people get value out of seminars at least SOMETIMES, the ban becomes harder to justify. Hence my point: to determine whether and how much regulation is justified, you’ve got to know the benefit of what you’re regulating.

  7. Oops, I mean “the cost of allowing seminars” in the last paragraph, not the cost of the regulation.

  8. Hi Chris, I wonder if you’ll be looking at methods of regulation. You seem to assume that it will be through the legal system (which I think is a pretty awful way to conduct human relations – apologies if you find this offensive, I know you laboured in the legal industry).

    There seem to be different values operating in this discussion. Cost/benefit is one, freedom of choice is another, possible harm is another.

    I guess self development is a pretty soft target. Many more people are killed by cars, doctors and hospitals to name just the ones that spring to mind.

    I’m not convinced that regulation is necessarily successful either. Passing a law doesn’t necessarily change anything. But perhaps you’ll consider that in a future post.

  9. Hi Evan — yes, I suppose we could also think of “regulation” in terms of self-regulation and what personal development teachers ought to voluntarily do, if anything. More of that may end up happening if the threat of legal regulation of the kind I’m talking about in this post becomes more serious.

    I think what you say about self-development being a soft target is right on the money — this is why I think it’s important to understand the benefits of self-development, and how we should determine what those benefits are. If the general public or the government sees it all as woo-woo nonsense or a scam, that will affect the extent of the regulation that will be contemplated, and unwise decisions may be made.

  10. A thought your reply triggered for me. How do we factor customers into regulation (other than through the expense of tort law – in Australia at least it costs money to bring a case).

    Perhaps a part of the price of each seminar or session could go to a fund for clients. This could fund seminars with no charges for admission and handle complaints as well.

    I think in self-development it would be better to have a transformation procedure (whose goal is win-win outcomes) than a complaints system.

    Don’t know how this would be organised legally – though I guess you may well have some ideas.

Leave a comment

Trackbacks are disabled.