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Although the personal development gurus keep delivering the same messages on how to be successful and happy, there are actually a lot of myths and heaps of misleading information about self-help techniques.  In fact one of Britain's leading professors on the public understanding of psychology, Prof Richard Wiseman, believes that many deeply held beliefs about personal development can actually be harmful.

Let's take just one idea from the self-help industry.  We have all been indoctrinated to visualise how you want your life to be, how you want to look or to visualise the things you want to have.  We are told to relax, close your eyes and imagine how you want your future to be.  We are told to enhance our visualisations by taking that much wanted BMW for a test drive, sitting in it and smelling the leather.  But Prof Wiseman shows how a large body of scientific research is now showing that these exercises are at best ineffective, and at worst can be actually harmful. He believes that this sort of mental escapism can leave you unprepared for difficulties and prone to giving up at the first sign of failure.

Other popular self-help techniques such as positive thinking and suppressing negative thoughts, he believes, can make people obsessed about the things that are making them unhappy.

There is also a lot of misinformation about the facts behind many of our beliefs about personal development.  Many self-help gurus are unable to track down the scientific experiments that they cite in their books and seminars -- they are simply regurgitating information that they are unable to verify.  This simply perpetuates these erroneous beliefs and acts as an effective barrier to real change that is supported by robust scientific investigation.

Prof Wiseman has carried out an extensive search of the behavioural sciences and psychology literature and come up with some rather interesting results.  He looked into the areas of:

·         Happiness and what makes us happy

·         Persuasion and how to convince people of practically anything

·         Motivation and overcoming procrastination

·         Creativity and how to develop it

·         Stress and how to overcome it

·         Relationships with people and why ‘active listening’ doesn't work

·         Decision-making and why you should make decisions alone

·         Personality and how to gain reliable insights into other people's personalities

In all these areas, he aimed to explode myths and discover the scientifically proven methods that really work.  He looked for techniques and tricks that work instantly -- or at least within a minute -- and were proven by peer reviewed scientific studies and experiments. I will be reporting on many of these findings in future articles, but for now let's have look at the intriguing science of gaining insights into other people's personalities...


Over the years, there have been various ideas about how to analyse a person's personality, from daft ideas like phrenology -- reading the bumps on someone's head -- to various psychological personality tests and graphology, or analysing people's handwriting.  Graphology has been taken seriously by big businesses and personnel departments have regularly used handwriting analysis as a way to eliminate unsuitable candidates in their recruitment procedures – in fact, surveys showed that between 5% and 10% of UK and US businesses regularly use graphology in this way.

In fact Prof Wiseman convincingly shows through a series of scientific studies that graphology is no more accurate in predicting employee performance or personality than a control group of untrained lay people with no experience of graphology whatsoever.  All in all, graphology, despite its popularity, has been shown to be worthless as a means of gaining insight into someone's personality, their abilities or their aptitude for success.

Even many popular personality tests have come under fire with notable psychologists and psychiatrists, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sir Francis Galton, making inaccurate assumptions about personality in their quest to find a workable system for analysing personality traits.  Only since the 1990s, we have had a consensus among scientists on effective personality testing.

Other scientific studies have shown that our exposure to testosterone before birth affects our level of masculinity or femininity for the rest of our life and is actually seen in the relative length of the index finger and the ring finger.  Numerous measurements have revealed that people whose ring finger is longer than their index finger show more masculine traits, and people whose ring finger is shorter than their index finger have more feminine traits.  This has been proved true time and time again and is known as the Casanova effect.

Other studies have shown that people who are at their best in the morning differ markedly in a personality and style of thinking than people who are at their best in the evening.  Larks, or morning people are more logical and prefer not to rely on intuition.  They tend to be more introverted, self-controlled and keen to make a good impression on others.  In contrast, owls, or evening types tend to be more creative in their outlook on life, more prepared to take risks, more independent, impulsive and nonconforming.

These interesting little insights can be very useful in business when it comes to sizing up the competition or evaluating your customers – and don’t let anyone dismiss you because of the way you cross your Ts!