The Pitfalls of Testimonials
Written by Daniel Mruzek, PhD, BCBA-D
When searching for a great restaurant or choosing a movie to go see, often we consider the personal re-ports of neighbors, work associates and friends. Why not? Their “testimonies” give us a quick method for judging the probability that a particular restaurant or movie will be a good investment. Of course, our friends and associates are not always right, but their testimonials serve as either short-cuts or as corroboration of other sources of information (e.g., restaurant or movie reviews). As such, they contribute to efficient decision-making about relatively low-stakes events.
We commonly see testimonials made by happy consumers presented by marketers of autism treatments. Indeed, testimonials are a standard feature on web-sites marketing pills, exercises, devices, interventions and therapies to potentially unwary consumers. Many testimonials take the form of simple, quoted statements (e.g., “The [marketed treatment] has had an amazing effect on my son!”). On the internet, video testimonials may be particularly compelling. Marketers know that the testimonials of some people, including attractive people, familiar celebrities, and people who may remind the potential consumer of him- or herself may be particularly effective. Adding pleasant theme music and using artful filming may complete the effect and increase the probability that families separate from their hard-earned money.
But, how should we use testimonial evidence in selecting potential autism treatments? When confronted with testimonials about possible autism treatments, it is recommended that families be especially cautious, particularly when the testimonials are the only source of sup-port for the intervention. Marketers can find a few individuals who provide testimony that their product is effective, even when the product is wholly ineffective. This is because, as consumers, our opinions about the quality of a product- including perceived effectiveness- are colored by our previous experience, what we have been told by others, and our expectations. Further-more, because human behavior- including the behavior of individuals with autism- is variable (i.e., changes across time), a treatment benefit may appear to exist, even when it does not exist at all.
For example, imagine that a marketer sold a “special” trampoline to 100 parents with the guarantee that daily use of the trampoline by their child would “open learning channels” and “promote language acquisition”. Of those 100 parents, it is reasonable to expect that at least a small number of them- perhaps 5 or 10%- may report that the product “seems to help”, even if the trampoline is not at all effective as an intervention in the way described by the marketer. A savvy marketer is watching for members of this small subgroup of consumers as their source of new testimonials!
And, how about all of the parents who purchased the trampoline and, subsequently recognized that it did not “open learning channels” and “promote language acquisition”? You can be assured that their opinions will not grace the marketer’s web-site, social media or glossy print advertisement. As a result, the marketers promote an illusion of product effectiveness where one may not exist at all.
It is for these reasons that parents and other consumers of autism “treatments” are cautioned to view testimonials skeptically. Testimonials are a wonderful way for business people to market merchandise but a poor way for families to determine true effectiveness of a treatment, device or intervention. Decisions regarding autism treatment are best guided by the scientific record, as supplied by trusted sources (e.g., a competent physician, psychologist or other autism expert). When it comes to making decisions about expensive autism interventions and the allocation of precious resources, persons with autism- and their families- deserve nothing less.