by Jackie Musci
Many pseudoscientific beliefs stem from medical and therapeutic fields because people love an easy solution, especially when it has to do with their health and well-being. One such pseudoscientific technique is the Emotional Freedom Technique – commonly known as “tapping”. This technique was founded in the 1990’s by Gary Craig, a Stanford Engineer who worked for the founder of Thought Field Therapy, Dr. Roger Callahan. Craig developed the Emotional Freedom Technique from Thought Field Therapy and aimed to make improvements in his field with this sort of therapy. Tapping works by stimulating the body’s energy meridian points by tapping them continuously in order to relieve emotional problems, stress, chronic pain, addictions, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical diseases. Proponents of this technique believe that the human body is full of energy, and when one is sick or distressed, his/her energy is disrupted. They believe that tapping on meridian points while simultaneously focusing on these negative emotions will restore the body’s energy balance and decrease negative emotions, which is at the heart of mental and physical sickness (Ortner & Ortner, 2018).
Many people believe in this technique wholeheartedly, and it is still used today to treat stress, anxiety, and illness. It has been implemented in classrooms to calm students down and reduce bullying, it has been used by athletes to calm their nerves, and it has been used by war veterans suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Although tapping has not been approved by the American Psychological Association, several psychologists have used this technique, and many EFT/tapping practitioners exist and are actively sought out. Detailed information on what tapping is, why it is beneficial, research on its success, where to find a practitioner, and much more can be found on the EFT official website called “The Tapping Solution”. Gary Craig, the founder of EFT, also has his own official website where one can learn about EFT, receive EFT certification, and take an EFT course (Ortner & Ortner, 2018). The belief in tapping as a legitimate medical treatment is extraordinary because it relies on anecdotal successes and stories despite research against it. It employs many aspects of pseudoscience such as the mantra of holism, absence of boundary conditions, and reliance on anecdotal evidence. It is important to analyze pseudoscientific claims and treatments such as tapping in order to prevent harm, lies, and the absence of effective treatment in people who need legitimate help with their sufferings.
The official website for the “Tapping Solution” lists several studies and points of evidence that support EFT and its ability to reduce negative emotions. The website cites research done at Harvard Medical School, which found that the amygdala’s stress and fear response could be lessened by stimulating the body’s meridian points with acupuncture and tapping. Research by Dr. Dawson Church was also sited. Church’s research used a randomized controlled trial to look at the stress levels in 83 individuals before and after an hour long tapping session. He found an average level of 24% cortisol level decrease in those who underwent tapping and no significant difference in cortisol levels in those who underwent traditional talk therapy. Tapping seems to have a calming effect for people, which might be shown in these experiments (Ortner & Ortner, 2018). However, these studies have flaws, such as a lack of adequate control group, and there is ample research showing the ineffectiveness of tapping as well. For example, one study by Waite and Holder assessed the effectiveness of EFT for anxiety and fear. The researchers split participants into an applied EFT group that administered tapping on meridian points, a placebo group that tapped on the wrong places, a modeling EFT group that administered tapping on dolls, and a control group that did nothing. Every group except the control group also implemented the positive verbal self-assurance that EFT employs. All groups except the control group saw a significant decrease in fear after treatment. This suggests that is it not the tapping on the actual meridian points or anywhere on the body that has the calming effect, but instead it might be the reassuring words patients repeat to themselves to combat negative emotions during the tapping (Waite & Holder, 2003).
Although EFT is a questionable technique that is backed by questionable research and not endorsed by the American Psychological Association, many people still use this technique, and it is very popular among a wide variety of people. These believers are not necessarily misinformed; rather they are misled into thinking this treatment is effective and guaranteed to heal any illness or condition. First, they are misled by seemingly solid research, which is actually flawed. For example, many of the supporting studies had weak p values, had a lack of double-blinding, did not control for placebo effects, had tiny sample sizes, and had inadequate control groups (Langford, 2014). However, many believers do not know how to assess research and do not notice these flaws in the study design. Proponents of tapping like to use fancy, scientific words which add fluff to the technique and convince ordinary people of its effectiveness even further. In addition, there are many cognitive contributions and errors in human thinking that lead people to accept this therapy as effective and scientific. One such error is the placebo effect, which is when a person experiences positive effects from the treatment, but not because the treatment is effective or working. An individual might believe in EFT so strongly, that the treatment works solely because of his/her belief. Furthermore, people might not realize they are seeing improvements in their negative emotions due to something other than the actual tapping. EFT includes tapping the meridians, focusing on the negative emotions, and verbally reciting encouraging and positive messages to one’s self. The positive messages alone, which is similar to traditional psychotherapy, might be causing the improvements in mental health. Additionally, proponents of EFT might be experiencing confirmation bias, in which they only seek confirming evidence; and the availability heuristic, in which they only remember confirming evidence. Both of these cognitive errors are common and can cause one’s beliefs to be even stronger. Lastly, individuals undergoing tapping deeply want it to work and might experience cognitive dissonance if it is not effective. As a result, they might convince themselves their negative emotions and symptoms have been cured.
Furthermore, there are several social and contextual contributions that may lead to this extraordinary belief. Many of those who use and believe in this technique are people who are tired of traditional medicine and mental health practices. They are people who have tried other options, such as antidepressants, surgery, or talk therapy. These people are drawn to the simplicity of tapping and the fact that it is a cure-all. They are drawn to the vast promises of healing that they are not used to in research-based treatments. They also are enthralled that this technique is free and can be done on one’s own. Many people in society are also drawn to natural and noninvasive treatments, such as tapping, because of the natural common place misconception. This misconception assumes that all things natural are effective and healthy. Furthermore, tapping proponents are heavily influenced by anecdotal evidence. Many people often make the mistake of believing if it works for one person, it must work for everyone. A strong, emotional personal story from a person who had success with EFT might convince numerous people that it will work for them too. A related contextual contribution that might cause a belief in tapping is the consensus heuristic. This is when a person assumes that if most people believe something works, it must work. However, this is often wrong and many people in our society can be swayed to believe an extraordinary belief all at once.
Although tapping and EFT seem like silly and ineffective treatments that could never cure the variety of symptoms and diseases it claims to cure, many people still passionately believe in this treatment and are large proponents of its effectiveness. Much of the research on tapping and EFT has focused on proving its effectiveness, and there has been little research done by unbiased researchers. In addition, many of the studies in support of EFT have been flawed in the research design, such as inadequate control groups. Further studies are needed to assess the effectiveness of EFT – specifically the actual tapping of the meridian points carried out with this technique. Those who believe in tapping or who have found it effective might have fallen victim to the placebo effect or cognitive dissonance in their deep hope that it works. Others might be experiencing confirmation bias or using the availability heuristic and only seeking evidence that supports EFT working. In addition, tapping may only be working because of the positive messages people recite to themselves while they tap the meridian points. Social contributions may also play a role in this belief, such as society believing all things natural are healthy – also known as the natural common place. People might also be drawn to the simplicity, ease, and noninvasive aspects of the treatment, which is something society values as a whole. Lastly, personal anecdotes and stories from proponents of EFT might influence people and quickly convince them of its effectiveness. Although tapping may actually provide some benefits to people through the placebo effect, positive words, etc., it is important to analyze the effectiveness of the actual technique itself in a scientific way. This helps prevent psychological harm and ensures that those struggling with a variety of mental and physical diseases receive proper and adequate treatment.
Langford, A. (2014, January 16). Time to turn off the Tap: Why Emotional Freedom Technique is dangerous nonsense. Message posted to https://psychiatrysho.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/tapping-into-quackery-why-emotional-freedom-therapy-is-dangerous-nonsense/
Ortner, J. & Ortner, N. (2018) The Tapping Solution. Retrieved from https://www.thetappingsolution.com/
Waite, W. L. & Holder, M. (2003). Assessment of the Emotional Freedom Technique. The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2 (1). Retrieved from http://www.srmhp.org/0201/emotional-freedom-technique.html