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The Psychology of Selling Woo

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We can all understand why someone with a chronic illness who hasn't found a successful treatment will turn to alternative medicine. Just the hope of finding a treatment can produce a placebo effect which will make them feel better. If they hear positive recommendations from friends, that will increase the placebo effect, and they'll tend to feel better still. So there's a good explanation for the attraction of customers to alt-med offerings. Couple that with a longer consultation, personal attention, questioning about all aspects of their lives, and the use of pseudo-science or mystical phrases and it's all too easy to see the attraction.

But what about the psychology of those who are selling these therapies? Somewhere along the line, they crossed over the counter, from consumer to seller, from looking for treatments for themselves to running a business selling them to others.

There's one sceptic school of thought that regards them all as charlatans, frauds, venal types who don't care what they say as long as they make money. But this is hopelessly wide of the mark.  The truth is that the overwhelming majority of those who sell alt-med therapies are well-meaning, caring individuals who genuinely believe that what they are doing helps their customers.  Based on their own experience, and the reports from other people, they have chosen to devote their time and money to working in the alt-med industry for honourable reasons.

Their willingness to help, their keenness to offer relief to people who are suffering, their belief that what they do is valuable, are all very laudable characteristics. And if their practises were evidence-based, there would be good reason to support their efforts. But there is a palpable lack of evidence, an abundance of trials which demonstrate no effect beyond placebo, a desperate shortage of any explanation of the alt-med claims, severe conflicts with known human physiology and biochemistry, and in many cases, a contradiction of known fundamental physical laws. Faced with so much evidence against these therapies, why are people still attracted to them? How do they become convinced that it is acceptable to sell them?

A major factor in the psychology of the Woo practitioner is the belief in the value of anecdote. When someone tells you they are better after an illness, what more evidence could you want? What could possibly be more accurate than a first-person report from a person affected? How can anyone doubt the reports of patients who have received the therapy? If you believe such anecdotal reports, you will not feel that there is any need for further evidence.

Unfortunately, the anecdote is the most unreliable type of evidence available. It is necessarily influenced by the values, beliefs, impressions, perceptions, hopes and expectations of the reporter. Often it is simply mistaken or confused, sometimes it is deliberately biased, always it is untrustworthy. Even if the reporter believes they themselves are being honest, they may well be unaware that they are reporting inaccurately. All of these forms of bias can be very easily confirmed by experiment, and have been; the bias inherent in anecdotal evidence has been known for centuries. Before anecdotal evidence can be accepted, it has to be free from bias.  Those who are committed to alternative medicine nevertheless place enormous importance on anecdotal accounts – they simply believe them and see no reason to doubt them.

This misunderstanding of what constitutes reliable evidence is widespread amongst alt-med practitioners and is reflected even in those quasi-academic papers published in alt-med journals. The scientific community typically uses double-blind, controlled trials to eliminate the otherwise inevitable bias in trials, but this practice is often not followed in papers published in alt-med journals. They often simply publish case studies reporting anecdotal accounts from patients. Double-blind simply means that neither patient nor practitioner knows whether or not the patient in the trial is receiving real or fake treatment.  This ensures that the results of the trial are not biased, and enables a comparison to be made.  Without the double-blind aspect of the trial, no genuine comparison can be made.

So alt-med practitioners have a very different view of what constitutes sufficient evidence, placing undue weight, and even total reliance, on anecdotal accounts. But is that it? If so, a simple presentation of the facts would convince them otherwise. But that hasn't happened. Alt-med practitioners resist the appeal of evidence and controlled trials. No matter how many truckloads of evidence land at their door, they still won't take it seriously. What is the source of this resistance?

About Bob Lloyd

  • Anirban

    Excellent article. I am glad that you also consider that most of the practitioners of alternative medicine are well meaning (as do I).

  • Bob Lloyd

    Although well-meaning, they can do quite a lot of harm as well. They can mislead people, misinform them about how their bodies work, promote beliefs in non-existent forces and energies, and utterly confuse people about the nature of illness. And of course, they can take money without providing any real treatment.

    As with many things, good intentions are not enough. It is psychologically very difficult for Woo practitioners to come to terms with the evidence about what they do and although they deserve sympathy, we should be no less insistent on the need for them to observe high clinical standards. Whatever the Reiki practitioner believes, their practise is still indistinguishable from someone committing fraud. Unless they can demonstrate the difference, they really should stop making the claims.

  • Robert M. Barga

    With many Amerians doubting evolution, and about 10% believing that our president is a Kenyan Muslim, it should not be hard to understand why they are so gullible to this.