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Smart Skills

Social media influencers are selling “success” to their followers. Don’t buy it

Self-help gurus for the digital age.
a painting of a watering can and a plant on a red background.
Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Self-help “gurus” have been fixtures of American society for decades. Online influencers selling expensive courses that teach “success” are the latest iteration.
  • For hundreds or even thousands of dollars, you can supposedly learn invaluable skills from Internet celebrities. But the products they sell are filled with the same kind of boilerplate nonsense we’ve seen from previous “gurus.”
  • Self-help systems generally aren’t evidence-based, says University of Virginia Professor James Zimring. The reality is that a lot of success boils down to luck.

Right now, thousands of internet influencers are trying to sell their followers the recipe for “success,” and many are buying it up. Never mind that this nebulous product has been pitched for decades by self-help gurus via in-person seminars, video classes, and blandly written books. The business of marketing personal betterment has moved online, seducing a whole new generation of individuals aspiring to wealth and achievement.

Influencers on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are marketing online courses on topics like financial psychology, landing a high-paying tech job, and, yes, even starting your own online influencer business.

The latter may be the most popular. After all, more than half of Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, spend more than four hours on social media every day, according to a 2022 Morning Consult survey. So it makes sense that approximately one in four members of this nascent generation desires paid social media stardom — they seek to emulate the celebrities they regularly view on their smartphones.

However, just like with past self-help gurus, many of these influencers peddle pricey online courses — some costing thousands of dollars — filled with boilerplate babble bordering on the nonsensical, repackaged for today’s economy. YouTuber and motivational speaker Brendon Burchard touts “high performance habits” and “the power of encouragement.” Financial influencer Grant Cardone posts inane things like “courage = money.” TikToker Kat Norton has said that “the only limits we have are the ones we’re placing,” and that realizing this puts you on “your destiny path and into your highest timeline.”

A self-help fallacy

In his 2022 book Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking, University of Virginia professor of pathology James Zimring points out that people who create and sell these self-help systems to “boost success” regularly make a fundamental logical fallacy.

By touting anecdotes rather than hard data, self-help influencers essentially commit a base rate fallacy. They tell their followers that adopting the habits of wildly successful people will make them successful, but they ignore the fact that these habits — work hard, wake early, be confident — are also undoubtedly very common among people who aren’t wealthy and famous. After all, a high degree of success comes down to luck.

“The issue is not what characteristics are found in successful people; the issue is what characteristics are found in successful people and not in less successful people,” Zimring wrote.

But have any online self-help influencers actually taken the time to systematically analyze this issue, or — more pertinently — to study whether the courses they sell actually work for their customers? You’d be hard-pressed to find any such evidence-based reflection. It’s far easier to create flashy, but ultimately meaningless, video drivel and market it to the masses. Heck, one influencer who teaches how to create and sell your own online courses touts that the process can make money on “autopilot.” The allure lies in attaining the most success for the least amount of work.

Zimring has a recommendation for anyone considering spending money on this new wave of self-help products.

“Ask the question: ‘Where is the data on how frequently these traits are found in the general population and is it higher or lower than highly successful people?’ Even better, do not accept a single anecdotal example as the evidence, but rather ask for the data on groups of people,” he wrote.

“In my experience, you won’t get a good answer, if you get any at all.”


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