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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Flight of the Dodo

In Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, Alice and her friends had just survived a stormy day at sea, and the wise dodo has just the answer to their rather damp plight.

What I was going to say,' said the Dodo, `was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.'

`What IS a Caucus-race?' said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

`Why,' said the Dodo, `the best way to explain it is to do it.' (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (`the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?'

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.'

Moral of the story: If you start out all wet, you just might end up all wet.

As a psychologist who thinks that most psychologists are all wet, this story has a particular resonance and illustration. In my last post, I noted that Rhonda Byrne's self help best seller 'The Secret' harbored a dirty little secret, namely that her 'secret' (and this is being extremely charitable) was unproven, that nobody cared to attempt to prove it, and that to follow the counsel of mere product endorsement (which is all the thing has) is to follow the counsel of a con man or a fool.

Of course Byrne's 'Secret' (i.e. think and you shall have) is merely the latest, although most eccentric variant of the oft phrased nostrum voiced from Dear Abby to Dr. Phil that that if you just think positively, challenge un-constructive thoughts, or mentally rearrange the cognitive deck chairs in one's noggin, then all would be well. The problem is, nobody has ever shown that any of this is more helpful than getting the wise counsel of your aunt, who will normally tell you the same thing. This was the conclusion of Robyn Dawes, who in his book 'House of Cards' , argued that psychotherapy is not a fraud, but that it ain't nothing special either. This was good news for family therapists (if it's a member of your family that is), but bad news for the psychotherapy industry. Of course, Dawes' conclusion caused a collective whine among therapists everywhere, who pointed to their own studies which conclusively proved that they had won the race and were the smartest and most effective of them all. But the problem is, and continues to be, that all therapists make that claim, irrespective of how they ran their race. In other words, as in Lewis Carroll's story, they all deserve prizes! This was the observation of John Horgan, who in his book 'The Undiscovered Mind' noted that awarding 1st prizes to all contestants is the same as awarding none. In other words, because therapists of all stripes claim to be equally special, they demonstrate that they aren't nothing special.

Of course, as Horgan notes, the race ain't over yet, but if prizes are given as easily as lollipops, then it never will be over, and that's a tragedy not just for psychology but for all of us.

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