Blog Post

Why People Believe Alternative Practices Work

Have you ever wondered why people are so convinced that therapies work, even when they've been proven by science to be quackery? Almost every New Age therapy has a website full of testimonials from people who really believe the technique worked. How could this be? Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D., compiled an interesting list of seven reasons why people can think they've been healed by either alternative or conventional medicine when they really haven't. 1. The disease may have run its natural course. "Many diseases are self-limiting," Dr. Beyerstein writes. "If the condition is not chronic or fatal, the body's own recuperative processes usually restore the sufferer to health." In order to prove that a therapy is effective, the practitioner has to be able to prove that the number of patients whose condition improved is greater than the number who might be expected to recover without any treatment at all.  "Without detailed records of successes and failures for a large enough number of patients with the same complaint, someone cannot legitimately claim to have exceeded the published norms for unaided recovery." 2. Many diseases are cyclical. Conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems normally have "ups and downs," Dr. Beyerstein writes. "Naturally, sufferers tend to seek therapy during the downturn of any given cycle. In this way, a bogus treatment will have repeated opportunities to coincide with upturns that would have happened anyway." 3. The placebo effect may be responsible. Through suggestion, belief, expectancy, cognitive reinterpretation, and diversion of attention, patients given biologically useless treatments often experience measurable relief, Dr. Beyerstein writes. It is also possible that in some cases, even a placebo response will produce an actual change in the physical condition. In other cases, subjective changes take place in which the patient feels better even though their condition has not improved. 4. People who hedge their bets credit the wrong thing. Dr. Beyerstein has found that if improvement occurs after someone has had both "alternative" and science-based treatment, the fringe practice often gets a disproportionate share of the credit. 5. The original diagnosis or prognosis may have been incorrect. It is always possible that an original diagnosis is incorrect, in which case a trip to an alternative "healer" could lead one to think they've been healed from a certain condition when they never really had it in the first place. 6. Temporary mood improvement can be confused with cure. "Alternative healers often have forceful, charismatic personalities," Dr. Beyerstein writes. "To the extent that patients are swept up by the messianic aspects of 'alternative medicine,' psychological uplift may ensue." 7. Psychological needs can distort what people perceive and do. Even when no objective improvement occurs, people with a strong psychological investment in "alternative medicine" can convince themselves they have been helped, Dr. Beyerstein has found. "According to cognitive dissonance theory, when experiences contradict existing attitudes, feelings, or knowledge, mental distress is produced. People tend to alleviate this discord by reinterpreting (distorting) the offending information. If no relief occurs after committing time, money, and "face" to an alternate course of treatment (and perhaps to the worldview of which it is a part), internal disharmony can result." Rather than admit to themselves or to others that their efforts have been a waste, many people will find some redeeming value in the treatment. "Core beliefs tend to be vigorously defended by warping perception and memory. Fringe practitioners and their clients are prone to misinterpret cues and remember things as they wish they had happened. They may be selective in what they recall, overestimating their apparent successes while ignoring, downplaying, or explaining away their failures." In fact, the reason why we developed the scientific method is to counter this very human capacity for jumping to unfounded conclusions based on what we want to believe.  "In addition, people normally feel obligated to reciprocate when someone does them a good turn. Since most "alternative" therapists sincerely believe they are helping, it is only natural that patients would want to please them in return. Without patients necessarily realizing it, such obligations are sufficient to inflate their perception of how much benefit they have received."