Does the Field of Coaching Qualify as a Pseudoscience? Part 2


The vivid appeal is likely to be both very memorable and hard to refute. Logical arguments fall on their face when a seemingly sincere person relates their triumph over a physical,  emotional, or mental challenge.  “I was the poorest student in the class until I…”, “I had struggled with my finances for years until I…”  Who can question another person’s internal life, personal discoveries, epiphanies?  Rags to riches stories cannot be refuted when a guru has indeed grown wealthy.

In my experience of the executive coaching field, there has been a dramatic shift from what I will call persuasion based on research/data to persuasion based on vivid appeals.  Paradoxically, as leadership challenges have grown more complex, the solutions for these have become ever more simple and typically involve some form of personal or organizational transformation.  It is difficult to measure the transformation of any organism, impossible to quantify its value.  

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Tactic Seven’ relates to the USE OF PRE-PERSUASION

In this maneuver, the pseudoscientist defines the situation, issue, problem in such a way that he can only win.  Pantankis states that this is a three-step process that first entails establishing the nature of the concern.  For instance, concerns about the safety or efficacy of a particular treatment or remedy are redefined as “health freedom” because who is opposed to “freedom”?  Consumer skepticism can also be managed through differentiation, “Tired of those phony psychics?  Ours are certified!”

The next step involves the management of expectations, which can be engineered in such a way that the target will interpret ambiguous information so that it supports the original hypothesis.  Pantankis’s team found in a study related to the efficacy of subliminal tapes that research subjects reported they had improved based on how the tapes had been labeled, rather than the actual content, which as identical to that of the control group. 

The third way to pre-persuade is to determine the decision criteria.  This would mean, for instance, that believers in psychic phenomena determine the research criteria by which psi can be confirmed. 

Well, where to begin?  “Tired of those fake coaches?  Ours our accredited”  Readers may want to check my recent interview with Professor David Clutterbuck who informed that his research team had found no correlation between accreditation, hours of experience, the coach’s price point, and the coach’s competence to coach.  This speaks, I am afraid to step three of the pre-persuasion formula meaning that the coaching field has, for the most part, empowered itself to determine the decision criteria and generally absent peer-review processes.  It also self-regulates, meaning it has convinced governmental bodies that it can monitor and ensure the competency and ethical behavior of practitioners.

I would add, too, that one role of granfaloon members is to boost the credibility of other members.   Social networks like Linkedin provide an ideal medium for this activity.  An individual who participates in a coach ‘training’ program will likely receive instant endorsements from fellow trainees.  I have noted, too, the use by coaches of ancillary granfaloons, e.g. “Global Guru” as credibility manufacturing structures.

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For the sake of clarity, heuristics are simple ‘if-then’ rules or norms that are widely accepted.  Examples might include “if it costs more, it must be more valuable.”  Commonplaces are widely accepted beliefs that can bolster an appeal.  An example might be, the coaching field should be self-regulating because coaches are honest, decent people (most are, btw).  Heuristics and commonplaces are excellent tools for the would-be pseudoscientist because they effectively divert the target’s attention from whether the proposition is real or appropriate. Pantankis details classic heuristics and commonplaces as follows, and I quote (please note that owing to the age of this article, some of the organizations mentioned are no longer extant, but you get the point), and I insert my comments related to the coaching industry after each entry:

 (a) The scarcity heuristic, or if it is rare it is valuable. The Psychic Friends Network costs a pricey $3.95 a minute and therefore must be valuable. On the other hand, an average University of California professor goes for about 27 cents per minute and is thus of little value!

In that recent research (Clutterbuck, et al.) has established that there is little correlation between accreditation by standard bodies, experience, price point, and coach competency, we have to assume that some buyer’s at least are responding to the “if its pricey, it must be valuable” heuristic, and some coaches are exploiting this.

(b) The consensus or bandwagon heuristic, or if everyone agrees it must be true. Subliminal tapes, psychic phone ads, and quack medicine feature testimonials of people who have found what they are looking for.

Common to many advertisements in the world of coach training and accreditation is the up-front statement of how very many individuals have availed themselves of this training, and/or membership in a given body.  Absent other information as to why the program confers value, the bandwagon heuristic is fundamental to the target’s decision.

 (c) The message length heuristic, or if the message is long it is strong. Subliminal-tape brochures often list hundreds of subliminal studies in support of their claims. Yet most of these studies do not deal with subliminal influence and thus are irrelevant. An uninformed observer would be impressed by the weight of the evidence.

I have seen one major provider of coach training and accreditation bombard targets with lists of research studies, many of which have little to do with the validity of its own offering.  One message being sent is that ‘we’ are a research-based organization, because ‘we’ post other people’s research on our website.  Likewise, I have seen U.S.-based brokers of coaching services communicate to buyers that the coaches they recommend are carefully vetted and supervised, when in fact there is little vetting and no supervision, whatsoever.  These firms typically embellish their websites with the names of Ph.D.’s that may have some oblique affiliation with the entity.

I see this heuristic taking interesting forms in the space of New Age Movement-based human development solutions.  For instance, there is a widespread idea in Large Group Awareness Training circles that fears and phobias can be ameliorated by a direct plunge into the feared activity.  I, who have a minor fear of heights, was repeatedly subjected to this ‘cure’ in off-site, experiential learning programs.  I am still afraid of heights.   More concerning would be the practice in many LGAT and some coach training programs — and corporate leadership development programs of encouraging participants to engage in the public ‘confession’ of personal fears, traumas, and perceived weaknesses.  While this practice may confer some benefit when engaged in a safe environment with a trusted and appropriately trained other – highly-competitive workgroups would not seem to be a safe environment.

(d) The representative heuristic or if an object resembles another (on some salient dimension) then they act similarly. For example, in folk medicine, the cure often resembles the apparent cause of the disease. Homeopathy is based on the notion that small amounts of substances that can cause a disease’s symptoms will cure the disease. The Chinese Doctrine of Signatures claims that similarity of shape and form determines therapeutic value; thus rhinoceros horns, deer antlers, and ginseng root look phallic and supposedly improve vitality.

I see this heuristic taking interesting forms in the space of New Age Movement-based human development solutions.  For instance, there is the widespread idea in Large Group Awareness Training circles that fears and phobias can be ameliorated by a direct plung into the feared activity.  I, who have a minor fear of heights, was repeatedly subjected to this ‘cure’ in off-site, experiential learning programs.  I am still afraid of heights.   More concerning would be the practice in many LGAT and some coach training programs and corporate leadership development programs of encouraging participant to engage in the public ‘confession’ of personal fears, traumas, perceived weaknesses.  While this practice may confer some benefit when engaged in a safe environment with a trusted and appropriately trained other – highly-competitive workgroups would not seem to be a safe environment.

(e) The natural commonplace, or what is natural is good and what is made by humans is bad.

Alternative medicines are promoted with the word “natural.” Psychic abilities are portrayed as natural but lost, abilities. Organic food is natural. Of course, mistletoe berries are natural too, and I don’trecommend a steady diet of these morsels.

Again, I think this speaks to constructs that inform the New Age Movement and inflect into the practice of coaching as a belief that we all have a better, more able, more authentic, more compassionate self, locked inside us and that this ‘self’ has been constrained by the social norms, which govern in our personal and work lives.  This belief disallows the value of interpersonal boundaries and of the trust and human intimacy that can grow over time between individuals and groups.

(f) The goddess-within commonplaces, or humans have a spiritual side that is neglected by modern materialistic science. This commonplace stems from the medieval notion of the soul, which wasmodernized by Mesmer as animal magnetism and then converted by psychoanalysis into the powerful, hidden unconscious. Pseudoscience plays to this commonplace by offering ways to tap the unconscious, such as subliminal tapes, to prove this hidden power exists through extrasensory perception (ESP) and psi, or to talk with the remnants of this hidden spirituality through channeling and the seance.

Discussions of the human soul aside, absolutely fundamental to many New Age Movement-based coaching constructs is the idea that each of us is possessed of hidden powers and resources that can be accessed by various techniques.  These techniques often entail the suspension of rational thought processes and the purposeful disconnect from bodies of knowledge and experience accrued in life experience.  While NAM terms such as “mindfulness” or “Beginner’s Mind” suggest heightened situational awareness, these states — if achieved — preclude the practitioner’s ability to evaluate and respond to the present moment based on their past learning, or that of others. 

Practically speaking, this means that both individual and organizational (system-wide) coaching interventions cannot encompass cultural differences, factor in the exigencies of labor law or public policy, or even address business necessity.  And, they often do not.

Similarly, coach training programs which focus on ‘Ontological Leadership Development’ produce practitioners with an eternal “Beginner’s Mind”, which is to say that they are unaware of the history, genesis, and theoretical constructs that inform their own field, cannot differentiate one school of thought or approach from another.  Additionally, they are hard-pressed to understand that organizational issues are multi-faceted and involve many stakeholder interests, which may not be amenable to solutions intuited of on tennis courts, or whilst driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

(g) The science commonplaces. Pseudosciences use the word “science” in a contradictory manner. On the one hand, the word “science” is sprinkled liberally throughout most pseudosciences: subliminal tapes make use of the “latest scientific technology”; psychics are “scientifically tested”; health fads are “on the cutting edge of science.” On the other hand, science is often portrayed as limited. For example, one article in Self magazine reported our subliminal-tapes studies showing no evidence that the tapes worked and then stated: “Tape makers dispute the objectivity of the studies. They also point out that science can’t always explain the results of mainstream medicine either”. In each case a commonplace about science is used: (1) “Science is powerful” and (2) “Science is limited and can’t replace the personal.” [bolding, mine] The selective use of these commonplaces allows a pseudoscience to claim the power of science but have a convenient out should science fail to promote the pseudoscience.

I used to often hear it said of the coaching field that it is both a science and an art, and I have no doubt that gifted practitioners bring many of the intangible qualities of the artist to their work.  That said, I am aware of an on-going dearth of legitimate research and peer-review processes in the field.  I am also aware that the competency models that inform most coach training and accreditation activities were not designed by experts in the field of competency modeling or according to best practice.  I have ceased to purchase books written by coaches who do not recognize that anecdotal experience is not research and is not, necessarily, transferrable to the coach/client engagements of others.

Sadly, though, many corporate and individual buyers of coaching services and coach training programs, for that matter, believe that these programs/approaches have been validated by someone, somewhere, and are encouraged to do so by marketing slogans such as “evidence-based”, “knowledge-based”, “grounded in cutting-edge research”.   This belief is often enhanced by the endorsement of Ph.D.-holding practitioners who may have had little or nothing to do with the design of the program in question.  I have come to often feel that in the coaching field, we have neurosurgeons promoting the work of psychic surgeons.

To be clear, I hold in very high regard the activity of corporate coaching as it began to emerge as a sub-discipline of consulting psychology, circa 1930.  What I am questioning are New Age facsimiles of this activity that have run parallel to research-based solutions and have come to supplant them.  

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This tactic would seem to be the ‘without which nothing’ of any pseudoscience operation.

If you cannot defend your product or service with actual data and facts, the default setting is to defame any and all who question you, and very aggressively.  These attacks may include claims that research models were poorly-designed or results falsified; that critics have a personal interest in undermining a body of work; that critics are jealous of the success of a given guru and his group; that critics are incompetent and unethical.  Often these attacks are advanced in the form of innuendo, which makes them particularly difficult to address or combat through academic or legal channels.   As Pantankis observes, it is the nature of innuendo, itself, that changes the frame of the discussion from the validity of the product or service to the character and competence of those who question it.  Additionally, being smeared by innuendo causes many well-intentioned persons to question whether the potential sacrifice of personal reputation makes sense.

Well, again, where does one begin?  While I have found practitioners who are positioned in the consulting psychology camp of the executive coaching field to be completely open to questions related to research models and validity and quite generous in their sharing of resources and information, the opposite has been true of New Age Movement practitioners.  My sense, here, is that many participants in this movement and its offshoot organizations are genuinely sincere and/but have themselves been duped into promoting and defending dubious science.  Many, too, have invested so much time and resources in training programs, and in their participation in granfaloons that they must now rationalize its value.  If they enjoy a robust practice, this would be proof itself that the methodology they utilize is effective.  My sense has been that to question anything in this field amounts to a sort of religious heresy.

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Pratkanis ends his article with the intriguing question as to whether science, itself, can be sold with propaganda and in the manner used by pseudoscience as outlined above.  I am afraid to say that he concludes that this is and can be so.  He states that,

 “propaganda works best when we are half mindless, simplistic thinkers trying to rationalize our behavior and beliefs to ourselves and others. Science works best when we are thoughtful and critical and scrutinize claims carefully.” [italics and bolded text, mine]


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

Join the Conversation


  1. Dear Leslie,

    Interesting read indeed.
    Would be great if you will find some time to march in to our new prime minister’s office to suggest coaching for him and his cabinet. Yes, needs lots of work in all areas, but will save this country from any further damage and grief. You could bring in a bag of Belgium waffles since it is public that he likes pancakes.



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