Crommunist joins a cult (part II)

In which our hero continues his narration of attending a workshop for a self-help program. Read Part 1.

What if everything you ever wanted… came in a ROCKET CAN? Okay, so this presentation wasn’t quite as entertaining as Powerthirst, but it amused me for the span of an evening. When we left off, the audience had just broken off into smaller groups to chat with the coaches.

What would you give?

The group discussion came back to the same central question that Mr. Vicente had kept posing, broken down into three (extremely leading) subquestions: 1) what would you like to achieve, 2) what would that accomplish for you, and 3) how much would you give up to achieve it? I call these leading questions because they prime you to accept that there is something on offer than can accomplish the transition from 1 to 2, in exchange for 3.

Those who know me in real life know that I’ve never shut up for longer than 30 seconds about anything. It’s an annoying habit, I know. But I managed, somehow, to summon the strength to keep my yapper shut through the entire group exercise. People shared wishes to be more confident, less afraid of success (priming is useful), more willing to try new things… the kind of nebulous and diaphanous ‘goals’ that can only be expressed in vague terms.

The problem with the question of “what would you give up” is that it is, to put it bluntly, stupid. There is a scene in an episode of the Simpsons where Mr. Burns, expressing regret for the way he’d lived his life, says “but I’d give it all up for just a little bit more.” That’s the question being asked – how much would you pay to have more that what you have? It’s a simplistic mathematical question that puts your head in a cloud of fulfilling your wildest dreams.

So I’d been keeping my mouth shut, until the coach turned to me and asked me the three questions. Not wanting to be rude (and feeling more than a little snarky), I answered honestly: my life is pretty good. I am content with the direction my life is currently taking, so I’m good without life coaching. Mark, watching from the door, was visibly unhappy with my answer.

The Product

So after the spiel with the groups, we were invited back in to talk about the miraculous panacea that is Rational Inquiry, the name for the technique ‘developed’ by Mr. Raniere. Mr. Vicente related a story about panic attacks that he used to have while stuck in traffic, but which were cured in a 45-minute consultation. A pretty impressive claim, but one that raises a disturbing question: why is he selling it to 20somethings with career problems? If you can cure panic attacks in 45 minutes, why aren’t you treating war veterans with PTSD? Maybe they aren’t quite as credulous…

“Rational Inquiry”, as it was presented, is a mish-mash of psychological concepts, borrowing heavily from Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour and Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT). Basically the idea is to identify precognitive triggers for unwanted behaviour (sometimes called ‘antecedents’) and to address and remove them. He used the shopworn example of the elephant tied to the flimsy rope as an example of the kinds of antecedents that would stop someone from pursuing success.

In order to give credit where it’s due, I am certainly not going to pooh-pooh Rational Inquiry out-of-hand. I don’t know nearly enough about the specifics of the method to say whether or not it’s valid. What I will say is that, unlike CBT or the Theory of Planned Behaviour, Rational Inquiry has undergone absolutely no clinical testing, has not been subjected to peer review, and is protected behind a wall of copyright. That cluster of facts suggests to me that, like other types of pseudoscience, Rational Inquiry is just a smokescreen that cannot deliver on its wild claims but hides behind anecdote and litigation.

The Aftermath

After the presentation was done, I chatted with Valerie and her friend who came along. I outlined my exact reasons, as described above, for my objections. The love-bombing; the stupid, leading questions; the pseudoscience and lack of testing; the suppression of critical thought – all of these things made me increasingly suspicious of the integrity of the program. A program, incidentally, which is draining Valerie’s bank account to the tune of $42/week (much more, incidentally, than I spend on electricity, internet, and transportation combined – what would you give up to completely waste your time?).

While I was talking (at long last – I had been keeping my opinions to myself for 2 straight hours), one of the coaches came over and began listening intently. I was confused by this, because I was basically pointing out all the ways in which he was propagating a scam. He didn’t seem to mind, so I kept discussing. I am reasonably certain that I didn’t change his mind, and Valerie was already a lost cause. However, I did manage to inoculate her friend, who was expressing skepticism beforehand but who couldn’t quite put her finger on why.

Concluding thoughts

Some people (Valerie included), think that to be a skeptic is to close yourself off from the more mysterious aspects of the world; that to be skeptical is to be cynical and dour about unfamiliar possibilities. I don’t blame her for this misconception, and to her credit it does not interfere with our friendship. What this evening demonstrated to me is that familiarity with the tools of skepticism does indeed close you off to things – fraud and pseudoscience. I used the word ‘inoculated’ above intentionally – a brain that is trained in the art of skeptical appraisal is a brain that is much more difficult to fool with fast talk.

Valerie is a fantastic person, and she told me in our subsequent conversation about the workshop that she feels like she is getting something out of the program. It was not my place to make her decision for her, and after giving her my opinion, I shut up. I am not sure whether or not she is truly getting something out of ESP, but after watching audience members signing forms with their credit card information in the lobby on the way out, I know for certain that skepticism, that night, saved me a bunch of money.

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  1. Riptide says

    I’m sorry, but I’ll always associate “CBT” with something far different than you suggest above.

    Other than that, great work! You definitely have bigger balls than most people who spout off on the Intertoobs.

  2. Michael Swanson says

    …my life is pretty good. I am content with the direction my life is currently taking…

    Right now, I kind of hate you for that. Just a little bit.

  3. Crommunist says

    Yeah, I don’t really blame you. I’m 27 though – lots of time for life to get much more complicated (It Gets Worse 😛 )

  4. Richard Almaraz says

    You love giant robots too?

    And, yeah. I have more than one friend like this, and my mother invites me along to things like this as well.

    Of course, the ones I find utterly reprehensible are the ones that target returning veterans, and promise a return to the Way Things Were before they got shipped out, but with more obfuscating words. They show up from time to time with fliers and the like around Ft. Sam, or BAMC more accurately. Normally a lot of the folks who give things out there are legitimately good people, but sometimes there are predatory jerks just around the edges.

  5. Simon B says

    Gah. I would be utterly terrified to step into that environment. It definitely makes for a cool set of posts though, and I’m happy to hear you were able to chat with Valerie’s friend afterwards. Good deed for the day achieved in spades. 🙂

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