Does the Field of Coaching Qualify as a Pseudoscience? Part 1

I have been thinking about what appears to plague of pseudoscience now afflicting the field of coaching, life and executive.  In the course of my thinking I pulled up a kinda dated, but still very meaningful article, How to Sell a Pseudoscience by Anthony R. Pratkanis, published in the Skeptical Inquirer way back in 1995.  In this article Prantankis, a professor at a California university, half-whimsically considers how one would go about creating a pseudoscience – what are the key tactics to implement.

I briefly summarize these below while attempting to assess the PQ (Pseudoscience Quotient) of what we call the field of ‘coaching’.

Prantankis begins his speculation with an expression “Holy Cow!” wonder at the things humans believe when they fork out money to buy a product or service that purports to produce a magical result – could be the psychic hotline, could be a diet fad, could entail membership in a cult like the People’s Temple (Jonestown, Guyana).

On Selling a Pseudoscience:

‘Tactic One’ requires the CREATION OF A PHANTOM, “Your life is not working!!!...and, mine is.”

Implicit in this is an unavailable goal – that looks real or possible if one applies the right amount of effort, in the right way, spends the right amount of money, has the right beliefs.

Well, my head is spinning right now with memories of TEDx-talkers who have suggested this very thing, and this would include a number of ‘coaches’ who describe how they surmounted some personal challenge, shyness, asthma, a ‘fear’ of success to achieve PEAK PERFORMANCE and and more fulfillment in life, and you can, too!  And, how many people would consult a ‘coach’ if they believed that a great deal of hard work was involved in changing, meaningfully, something they can actually change?


Tactic Two’ requires the setting of a RATIONALIZATION TRAP

This requires that the pseudoscience salesman gets his target committed to the cause, ASAP – think multi-level marketing schemes, think Landmark Education.  Once the victim has committed himself to the scheme, his own desire to be right in his assessment ensures that he stays involved, and digs himself in deeper.  Typically, in these schemes, you will see a ‘free’ offer…30 minutes of this or that, which causes the target to believe that the salesman is so confident in the quality of his offering he is assured of your business if can get you to just try it.

It has certainly been my impression that individuals and organizations that sell coaching skills training operate as multi-level marketing schemes, which promise their graduates personal transformation and professional opportunities that may or may not pan out. These entities also very actively encourage the enrolment of new members.



 The fastest route to this is to create a ‘guru’, a ‘mystic’, ‘a wonder-boy or girl’ who claims some specialized knowledge, or unique experience.  This person will often have dubious credentials in a dubious science from dubious institution.  Often the target will dismiss his initial doubts owing to the extreme sincerity the guru exhibits in helping others achieve their ‘hidden’ potential or the recovery of their health and well-being.  I would add, too, and from my own experience in the coaching world that it is important to claim that one is the “father of” some aspect of the field, as though no human had ever had a particular sort of conversation before.  I have also noted a tendency to affiliate with (however superficially) or to outright appropriate the elite brands of individuals or institutions, e.g. “X studied under, was influenced by GLOBAL BRAND NAME”, or “X is the Harvard of coach training programs”. 


Tactic Four’ – and my personal favorite — ESTABLISH A GRANFALOON.

The author Kurt Vonnegut created this term to describe a “proud and meaningless association of human beings”.  A leader needs followers!  And, as the social psychologist Henry Tajfel established that granfaloons are ridiculously easy to create.  He brought random subjects into his lab and arbitrarily labeled them X’s or W’s.  By the end of his study, each group (of strangers) treated each other like family and the other group as an enemy class. 

Having attempted to affiliate with a number of ‘professional practice groups’ in the coaching field, I can report that they are essentially meaningless associations that do not advance the learning of their members or the interests of the field.  Also, a careful look at the competency models and assessment practices of coach ‘accreditation’ bodies reveals that very little differentiates one brand from another.  The salient differentiator seems to be the size of the granfaloon!

CHECK ✓✓✓✓


This approach harkens back to World War II experiments related to how to change consumer behavior. The psychologist Kurt Lewin was able to get Americans to eat less savory cuts of meat by having them form neighborhood groups committed to figuring out how to persuade others to change their dietary choices.

Multi-level marketing schemes also enlist customers as an auxiliary sales force to recruit more customers.  And, here is why “the testimonial” is adjudged to be so important to the attraction of new targets.

Given that there is very little to differentiate many coaching methodologies, and sellers rarely take the time to create informed consumers, self-generated persuasion is critical to the sale of coaching – testimonials abound, clients are badgered to recruit more clients.  And, applying the logic Kurt Lewin used to create an appetite for organ meats, we are told that “Everybody needs a coach!”

CHECK ✓✓✓✓✓

Anthony R. Pratkanis, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19, Number 4 (July/August 1995): Pages 19-25.

To be continued in the next installment.

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