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In my PSY 101 class, we recently discussed some problems with using anecdotes and testimonials as evidence for claims. In this post, I want to begin to explore this issue in more depth. In future posts, I will discuss further some of the issues touched upon here.

Anecdotes

One afternoon, Eileen Lipsker was sitting in her family room watching Jessica, her red-headed five-year-old daughter, play with her friends. Eileen later reported that she felt “spaced out” and was “thinking of nothing.” Lenore Terr (1994), a psychiatrist who spoke with her on many occasions, described what Eileen said happened next:

Jessica twisted her head to look at her mother. To ask something? Her chin pointed up in inquiry. She looked up and over her shoulder. Her eyes brightened. How odd! The young girl’s body remained stationary, while her head pivoted around and up…. And at exactly that moment Eileen Lipsker remembered something. She remembered it as a picture. She could see her redheaded friend Susan Nason looking up, twisting her head, and trying to catch her eye.

Eileen, eight years old, stood outdoors, on a spot a little above the place where her best friend was sitting. It was 1969, twenty years earlier. The sun was beaming directly into Susan’s eyes. And Eileen could see that Susan was afraid…. [Eileen] looked away from those arresting eyes and saw the silhouette of her father. Both of George Franklin’s hands were raised above his head. He was gripping a rock. He steadied himself to bring it down. His target was Susan. (pp. 2-3)

Eileen told Terr that this is how she first recovered her repressed memory of Susan Nason’s murder by her father. Eileen’s recounting of the memory recovery is an example of an anecdote: a brief story told by an individual about a personal experience. No matter how interesting or compelling an anecdote may be, it doesn’t provide good evidence for a claim because it is based on interpretations and memories of personal experiences. In other words, an anecdote is inadequate evidence for a claim because it does not control for factors that affect how a personal experience is (a) initially perceived and interpreted, and (b) eventually remembered.

Figure 1. An example of an anecdote used to support the claim that extraterrestrials visit earth

Figure 1. An example of an anecdote used to support the claim that extraterrestrials visit earth

Testimonials

Autistic Disorder is a severe mental disorder that develops in children before the age of three years. It has three main symptoms: a severe impairment in social interaction, a severe impairment in the ability to communicate, and a severely restricted range of interests, activities, and behaviors. On occasion, new treatments for autism are announced that seem to offer hope for either a cure or, at least, a dramatic reduction of symptoms. One such well-publicized treatment used injections of secretin–a hormone that assists in the digestion of food. Some have claimed that secretin improves the social and language skills of autistic individuals by affecting specific behaviors such as the amount of eye contact made, the level of awareness of one’s surroundings, the degree of sociability, and the amount of speech. One proponent of secretin therapy provided the following evidence for this claim:

The good news is that confirmatory evidence of the power of secretin keeps coming. A national newspaper told of Florida pediatrician Jeff Bradstreet’s own four-year-old son, Matthew, shocking his parents by holding his first normal conversation with them the day after his first secretin infusion. And Virginia pediatrician Lawrence Leichtman told me of his “miracle case”: a five-year-old who had previously said only two words amazed all in the office by saying, 15 minutes after his infusion, “I am hungry. I want to eat.” Most cases are much less dramatic, but the autism world is excited, and for good reason. (Rimland, 1998, p. 3)

Is this good evidence for the effectiveness of secretin in the treatment of autism? The evidence consists of two testimonials. A testimonial is an anecdote that describes the supposed merits of a product or service. Testimonials are not good evidence for a claim because they are anecdotes and, as stated above, anecdotes don’t control for factors that might distort our observations and interpretations of a personal experience, as well as how we remember it later on. For example, we may misremember exactly what happened during the event, or may have misinterpreted what we observed during the event.

Figure 2. A testimonial from a celebrity about a brand of cigarettes

Figure 2. A testimonial from a celebrity about a brand of cigarettes (circa 1951)

In testimonials about therapeutic treatments, one very important factor that causes distortions of perceptions, interpretations, and memories is people’s expectations for the treatment. These expectations may cause them to conclude that their symptoms improved or disappeared even when they haven’t. This generally happens in one of two ways:

  1. The expectations may cause observers (e,g, patients, family members, doctors) to misperceive or misinterpret the behavior of those receiving a treatment, thereby concluding that the behavior has changed when it really hasn’t.
  2. The expectations may cause observers to experience improvement that has nothing to do with the nature of the treatment itself (e.g., the placebo effect or a self-fulfilling prophecy; see later posts in this series).

Specific examples of some of the problems mentioned here will be described in future posts.

You may contact me at drjeffryricker@gmail.com

References

Pendergrast, M. (1996). Victims of memory: Sex abuse accusations and shattered lives (2nd ed.). Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access.

Rimland, B. (1998). The use of secretin in autism: Some preliminary answers. Autism Research Review International, 12(4), 3. Retrieved January 23, 2013, from http://legacy.autism.com/ari/editorials/ed_secretinfindings.htm

Terr, L. T. (1994). Unchained memories: True stories of traumatic memories, lost and found. New York: BasicBooks.

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One of the major goals of this website is to help people learn about scientific research in psychology and how it can help all of us to better understand why we do what we do in our everyday lives. This goal requires that we learn about some of the attitudes and assumptions indispensable to doing good research in the behavioral sciences. In this post, I will argue that two essential attitudes for scientific researchers are skepticism and empiricism. In fact, these attitudes form the foundation of the scientific approach to understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Evaluating Claims About Mind and Behavior

Angel Therapy works on the belief that everyone has guardian angels, and these angels perform God’s will of peace for us all. When we open ourselves to hear our angels’ messages, every aspect of our lives become more peaceful…. You can connect with your angels and guides. According to the therapy, everyone has at least 2 guardian angels, and a variety of spirit guides, souls who have agreed to work with you throughout your life. These angels and guides are loving entities, and are here to help you in every aspect of your life. They are believed to be the source of intuition and inspiration, and there to support you during times of need. (Quoted from The Body Guide website)

Three main claims are made in this passage. (1) We all have at least two guardian angels as well as countless other angels and spirit guides that we can “connect with.” (2) These supernatural beings want to help us in every aspect of our lives. (3) This help can be therapeutic: it can reduce or eliminate psychological problems and even provide “intuition and inspiration.”

But what is the evidence that these supernatural beings actually exist and that, if they do, that they want to help us? Susan Stevenson, a therapist, has claimed that the evidence is all around us, but that we need to pay close attention to see it:

My life seems to be teeming with angelic connections, and the momentum is building. Have you noticed this in your own life? Angelic reminders that they are with us- ‘whispers’ in our ear, ‘taps’ on the shoulder, brushes of air across your skin or changes in air pressure, ‘flutters’ from deep inside, glints of light and color- all these gentle hints to pay closer attention to their presence. Think back- have you been paying attention, listening, responding? (Carroll, 2012)

When one makes a claim, one is stating that something is a fact. In other words, a claim is a statement that is thought by at least one person to be true; but of course, it may turn out to be false. Claims often involve interpretations of experiences. For example, you may interpret a “brush of air” across your skin as an angel who has just passed by, or you may interpret it as a breeze that has wafted through the room from an open window. A glint of light may be the sign that an angel is nearby, or it may be the sign that sunlight just reflected off a passing car. In other words, two people may interpret the same experience in different ways. In deciding which interpretation is more likely to reflect reality, we need to evaluate the different interpretations. We do this by examining relevant evidence.

In your everyday life, you probably often have heard claims made about psychological problems and psychological therapies; and you probably think that you already know quite a bit about psychology. In order to get a sense of what you might know, please take the following brief quiz.

Which of the following claims are true?

  • dream images are known to have particular meanings that involve unconscious desires and conflicts
  • eating sugar causes children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to become even more hyperactive
  • a person who commits suicide must have been clinically depressed
  • a 40-year-old man who has sex with a 15-year-old girl would be diagnosed with pedophilia
  • there are more admissions to mental hospitals during full moons than at other times
  • unconscious memories of traumatic events can be remembered in detail with hypnosis
  • a person who exhibits two or more personalities is diagnosed with schizophrenia
  • low self-esteem is known to cause most self-destructive behaviors
  • most mental disorders can be cured by remembering and mentally reliving distressing past experiences

You may be surprised to learn that none of these claims is known to be true. In fact, all but a few are known to be false, and the remaining ones are controversial at best. In order to avoid basing important decisions on false claims, clinicians (professionals who study and treat psychological problems), or those who aspire to be clinicians (perhaps you), need to learn to think critically about claims made about psychological problems and their treatments. Of fundamental importance to this goal is the development of skeptical and empirical attitudes regarding claims.

Skepticism

In some religions, a shaman is said to be a mediator between the visible natural world and an invisible supernatural world. The shaman claims to be able to journey to the supernatural world in order to help heal the ill, foretell the future, and control natural events. Some mental-health workers use shamanic journeying to help those suffering from psychological problems. Sharon Van Raalte (1998) gave an example of her shamanic work with a client:

Through image and symbol, the shamanic journeys revealed levels of knowing that were often beyond what could be perceived or expressed by the clients or the psychiatrist. For example, Luke was dying from a brain tumor. An early journey suggested that I teach his wife, Suzanne, to work with him. Learning to journey to find her power animal proved to be helpful when it came time for her husband to die. At another point, I was journeying on a question for myself, when the focus abruptly changed. I found myself sitting with [Luke and Suzanne] in a boat that began moving to a farther shore. On the other side, Luke got out of the boat and went toward a group of people waiting to greet him. I had the sensation that the pain they had caused him in his life was washed away as they surrounded him with love. The classic shamanic experience (known as conducting the souls of the dead) had come unbidden. (p. 164)

In other words, Van Raalte claimed that she and Suzanne had accompanied Luke to the “other side” as he was dying, and then saw him being reunited with others who had died before him. An apparent confirmation of this interpretation came later:

Only after I had reported this journey to the psychiatrist did I learn what had literally happened. In his delirium as he was dying, Luke had called out the name of his dead sister, with whom he had had a painful relationship. Drawing from the experience of her single [shamanic] journey, Suzanne knew what he was seeing and urged him to run to his sister. (p. 164)

In these passages, Van Raalte is making a number of claims: (1) She is able to journey to a spirit world. (2) She saw Luke being reunited with his dead sister. (c) Shamanic journeying is an effective treatment for at least some psychological problems. When hearing claims such as these, scientific psychologists are trained to be skeptical–to doubt the claim unless it is supported by adequate evidence. These particular claims may be true, but we need to see good supporting evidence before we accept them. As an ideal, we should be skeptical of any claim that may have an important impact in our lives, even a claim that seems on its surface to be convincing. It probably is impossible to reach this ideal, but we should strive to develop our skepticism as much as we can in order to improve our decision-making and problem-solving abilities. And it should be incumbent upon people who work in mental-health fields, especially those offering therapeutic services, to develop their skepticism as fully as they can since their beliefs and actions have important consequences for those with psychological problems.

When confronted with a claim, a skeptical thinker needs to do two things. First, because a claim is based on a particular interpretation of an experience, a skeptical thinker always needs to consider other possible interpretations of that experience. For example, a shamanic therapist who claims to be journeying to a supernatural realm may actually be doing so. On the other hand, she may only be vividly imagining that she is doing so, or she may be experiencing hallucinations. By considering other interpretations, a skeptical thinker is less likely to automatically accept the claimant’s interpretation and more likely to examine carefully the various alternatives.

Second, a skeptical thinker needs to determine if there is any evidence that contradicts the claim. For example, Van Raalte stated that she saw Luke being greeted by a “group of people,” all of whom had caused him pain during his life. However, the psychiatrist with whom Van Raalte worked stated that, at the time of his death, Luke mentioned only his sister’s name and was urged to run to his sister. This evidence seems to contradict the claim made by Van Raalte that she had seen Luke with a group of people at the time of his death. Without further clarification and more evidence, it is difficult to know whether to accept or reject her claim.

Empiricism

Evidence consists of observations that allow us to evaluate whether a claim is likely to be true or false. Let’s consider a very simple claim that probably everyone believes is true: “The sun will rise tomorrow morning.” For me, this claim is based on the following evidence:

  • As far back as I can remember, I have seen the sun rise each and every morning of my life.
  • No mention has ever been made in any historical document that the sun has ever failed to rise. It seems likely that something as significant as the sun not rising would have been recorded and reported.
  • Scientists and other experts tell us that the sun rises each morning because the Earth rotates on its axis, and that it should continue to do so for billions of years.

From all this evidence, it seems reasonable to infer that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. If someone claimed that he knew that the sun was not going to rise tomorrow morning, you would immediately ask him why he believed this claim (this is equivalent to asking him for his evidence). If he stated that he dreamed that this would happen and that his dreams often come true, most of us would be skeptical: the supporting evidence (his dream) does not seem adequate to accept his claim.

What is the best kind of evidence for supporting a claim? Should we rely upon what an expert tells us? Should we accept a person’s intuition? Are the statements of a channeled spirit guide acceptable evidence for a claim? Regarding the nature of evidence, scientific psychologists are trained to be empirical–to make direct observations of events in the natural world that are relevant to evaluating the claim. Empiricists do not consider statements made by authorities, armchair speculations, dream interpretations, or messages supposedly obtained from supernatural beings, to be adequate evidence for a claim. Instead, empiricists must see for themselves whether a claim is likely to be true or false. For example, in testing the claim that shamanic journeying is an effective treatment for at least some psychological problems, an empiricist would want to measure directly the severity of clients’ symptoms both before and after being told what was discovered about them during a shamanic journey. If their symptoms improved relative to those of a second group of clients who were told things about themselves that were not discovered during a shamanic journey, then this would be evidence that shamanic journeying (for whatever reason) is an effective therapeutic technique.

You may contact me at drjeffryricker@gmail.com

References

Carroll, R. T. (2012). Angel Therapy. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved November 9, 2012, from http://skepdic.com/angeltherapy.html

The Body Guide. (2012). What is Angel Therapy? November 9, 2012, from http://www.thebodyguide.co.uk/AZTreatment.aspx?Tid=554

Van Raalte, S. (1998). Direct knowing. In W. Braud & R. Anderson (Eds.), Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences (pp. 163-166). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately, and I’m starting to think that maybe I’m not the best person for me. I’m beginning to realize that I don’t bring out the best in myself, and that probably I stay with myself mostly out of habit. No, that’s not it. It’s like an addiction: you know that it’s really going to be bad for you over the long-term but that, just for this moment in time, you’re going to give in to the cravings; knowing deep down that it won’t be just for this moment–that it won’t stop until you’re dry-heaving in the back of an old station wagon with faux wood paneling, hating yourself for allowing yourself into your life and letting it happen all over again.

01

So then you go cold-turkey for a while, promising yourself that it’s never going to happen ever again: that you’re never going to be you again. But the cravings are there–those God-damned cravings–and they build and build until it gets so bad that you eventually end up right back where you started: getting together with yourself, “just for tonight,” and starting that roller-coaster ride all over again. Doing it again and again until you can’t stand the sight of yourself in the mirror anymore. And the crazy thing is that you know … YOU KNOW! … just before you open that door and invite yourself back into your own life, how it’s all going to end: the same way it’s ended a 1000 times before. But you open that damned door anyway!

My relationship with myself has always been a wild, up-and-down roller-coaster ride. Sometimes it’s really great: I’m a lot of fun to be with, I’m feelin’ really close to myself–the bond is there and it’s really strong. It’s no effort at all to be with myself, to get along, and just to feel comfortable being me with myself–no judgments and no expectations. Hell, at those times, I feel such a strong connection with myself that I even find myself finishing my own sentences; and just, you know, really, really understanding where I’m coming from. At those times, I feel as if I’ve known myself my whole life–like I’ve grown up with myself, sleeping in the same crib, playing with the same friends, going to the same schools, even lusting after the same people … you know, experiencing everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, together. It’s such a high to feel this way–to be understood so well by yourself. Nothing’s hard, nothing’s difficult. And, at those times, I just couldn’t imagine ever being without myself.

But then it starts. I do something a little stupid and get annoyed with myself. It’s just a minor thing, a little irritation; but I feel hurt and betrayed anyway, and just so very upset that I could treat myself that way, after all I’ve been through with myself! I know that I’m over-reacting at those times but I can’t help it! After the great times, it’s such a shock to see myself treating myself this way. So, I start to distance myself, more and more, until eventually It turns into a big fight, and I refuse to even think to myself for a few days.

02

But of course, that doesn’t continue for long. Eventually I start to think again. And, over all the years I’ve been together with myself, my life has become so intertwined with my life that it seems impossible to even imagine living apart from myself. When I think those thoughts, it seems just too damned difficult to take that final step and break it off for good! You know, I really hate to admit it but, at those times, I feel like I’m nothing without myself and that I’ll never be anything unless I’m always in my life. (God, it was so hard to write that sentence, and it’s even harder to reread it now. Give me a minute, will you?)

It’s my own fault that I think this way, I know. I’ve let myself believe what I tell myself is true. When I believe that something is true, I can’t bring myself to disagree with myself, or at least to question whether or not it’s possibly, just possibly, not true. It’s like I have this mysterious power over myself–a power that I can’t describe but that I’ve never been able to resist. I know that none of what I’m thinking–you know, that “I can’t survive unless I’m in my life,” that “I’ll die if I leave myself,” all that crap that I’ve been telling myself for years–I know that none of it is true! But, just when I’m at a place where I can begin to question it, all of a sudden I’m there, and all my rational thinking flies out the window. I tell myself that I’m crazy, that it IS true that I can’t live without myself, and I’m stuck again!

Hell, it makes me disgusted with myself just to admit it, but I find that I can’t even go to the bathroom without myself!! Now how sick of a relationship is that??? So, I pretend like none of the bad stuff ever happened, that I’m really a great guy, that everything is going to turn out all right, that I never really meant to hurt myself that way. In short, I forgive myself despite the years of betrayals and all the hurt I’ve caused myself.

You know what’s nuts? Underneath it all, when all is said and done, I KNOW that I’m just using myself, that all I’m doing is using myself to get my own needs met. But I let it happen anyway. Why? Well, because … because it’s just so easy to say “yes” to myself. I’m completely, utterly, under my own control, it seems. I have absolutely no boundaries with myself! I just come waltzing right back into my life as though nothing’s happened! I hate myself for loving myself so much, because I know that it’s not a real love–a healthy love!! It’s a toxic, sick, disgusting “love”–a love where I let myself use myself to satisfy my own needs.

And when I let myself back into my life, I know that it’s all going to start and end just like it has so many times before; and that it will do so again, and again, and …. well you know. You’ve been there, too.

But I think that I’m finally through with it! Today, no matter what I did in the past, I’m going to take charge of my own life and never let me back into my life again! EVER!! I know that I’m bad for myself, that I keep myself down, that I’ll never grow as a person as long as I keep letting myself back into my own life. So, I’ve decided that, starting from this point on, I’m making this unbreakable commitment to myself. I’m telling everyone I know so that I will never go back on it.

I will never, ever again allow myself to be me!!

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