Apr 22 2010

The Layer of Unnecessary Ritual

Fans of Bruce Lee are likely familiar with Jeet Kune Do, the style of fighting he developed in the 1960s. Lee felt there was too much wasted motion in most martial arts styles – there was a layer of ritualized and superfluous movements built up over the years. So he set out to strip away all the ritual and reduce martial arts technique to the minimal core movements that conveyed optimal function. The result was Jeet Kune Do.

It seems humans have a tendency to clog systems with ritual and fluff. In the cognitive sciences this fluff is often treated as “theory” and when interventions based upon the theory seem to work, proponents interpret this as validating the theory.

But in order to know that the theory is truly valid, variables need to be controlled to skeptically ask the question – is it the elements unique to the theory that are working, or the more basic elements of the intervention? For example, with eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapists basically ask clients to ponder their fear or anxiety while they follow an object with their eyes back and forth. Proponents claim the eye movements affect the brain’s hardwiring, but they ignore the more basic elements of the intervention. First, there is the most basic and non-specific effect of introducing a novel technique into a therapeutic relationship – whenever you do anything new with a client, there will be a non-specific effect. Second, there may be an element of cognitive therapy involved. If you control for these variables, do the eye movements themselves add anything to the effectiveness of treatment? Probably not.

This basic concept of unnecessary ritual came up during an interesting conversation I had with Jamy Ian Swiss back stage at NECSS. It turns out he has experience working with wolves (who knew) and we were talking about an audience question about the dog whisperer. There are various competing theories within the world of dog training – Jamy brought up pack theory, which emphasizes the role of hierarchy in a pack of wolves and deals with issue like dominance and being the alpha male. Alternatively, we can view dogs as perpetual puppies (much of the evolution of dogs from wolves constituted neoteny, the maintenance of juvenile characteristics into adulthood). According to the neoteny approach, puppies should be treated like children who need parenting and approval.

So should we treat dogs like members of the pack or like children who need parenting? Does it matter? It probably does, in that an owner’s relationship to their dog will vary according to which theory they are following. But does one approach work better than the other? It seems that both approaches work sometimes and not others, but the real question is – when they do “work” what is it that is actually working? Regardless of theory, anytime you try to affect the behavior of an animal through a combination of reward and punishment you are using some form of conditioning (whether classical or operant).  Therefore any claim that a theory of dog whispering is effective must first separate out the variables that are unique to the theory from those that are general to conditioning.

To give yet another example, I think dieting for weight loss also fits into this category of the unnecessary ritual. The evidence strongly suggests that all diets work (when they do) by reducing caloric intake – period. Everything else is the unnecessary ritual that derives from the dubious fluff “theory” that is used to market the diet. There are techniques that genuinely help people to control their caloric intake, like tracking their food intake and meal replacements, but theories about low carb, low fat, avoiding or eating specific foods, eating at times of day, etc. are all irrelevant variables.


The basic lesson from these examples is that there appears to be a tendency to burden theories and practices with unnecessary fluff. People are natural theorizers – we like to think we understand the underlying reason that things work the way they do. But we are not intuitive scientists or skeptics, that part has to be learned and requires vigilance and rigor. The result is that when we come up with a theory, or absorb one from the culture, confirmation bias is likely to convince us that the theory “works” (we will seek out, notice, and remember anything that seems to confirm the theory, and dismiss anything that contradicts it as the exception that proves the rule).

This process of confirmation bias leads to the ratcheting up of unnecessary ritual, like sports stars who develop an increasingly elaborate ritual of superstition they must go through before every game. Every time we try out a new element, it seems to work, so we add it.

Every now and then we need to clean house – to ask the scientific questions about which variables are actually working, and which ones are just illusion, and then strip away all the ritual and nonsense.

In other words, we could do worse than to listen to the wisdom of Bruce Lee. We need a Jeet Kune Do of counseling and dog whispering, and any other system weighed down by ritualized and superfluous movements.

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