In a recent episode of the All Fired Up! Podcast, I was was ranting with Fiona Willer, advanced accredited practising dietitian and a regular guest on the show. We were venting our outrage at dodgy conferences, specifically the unfortunately named “obesity and eating disorders (OBED) conference,” which ran at the salubrious Tweed Heads RSL in September this year.
One of the speakers we were particularly perturbed by was a psychologist from Bond University who was giving a keynote speech called “Emotional Freedom Techniques (AKA tapping) for food cravings and weight management: 10 years of clinical trials.”
I mean – come on.
The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is not a widely used psychological treatment technique. In fact, it is not a reputable psychological technique at all. EFT fits firmly within the realm of ‘pseudoscience,’ where fringe ‘theories’ try to pass themselves off as respectable. Pseudoscientific techniques present themselves as scientific, but on closer examination, do not hold up to close scientific scrutiny.
The psychologist from Bond University bills herself as ‘world leader’ in EFT. This is purely, we suspect, because no-one else is studying it. Because it’s not even close to plausible.
To understand EFT and why we think it’s a load of bullshit, here’s a quick overview of its origins and assumptions:
- EFT has its roots in Thought Field Therapy (TFT), a pseudoscientific therapy technique devised by psychologist Roger Callahan in the 1980’s. Callahan discovered the technique by accident during a session with a phobic client. Inspired by an acupuncture class he was taking, he asked the client to ‘tap’ underneath her eyes and apparently her phobia was instantly, miraculously cured. This lead to Callahan developing a wild theory based on the idea that invisible energy pockets called “thought fields” exist within the body (Callahan and Callahan 1997). Callahan then decided that the root cause of all psychological problems are ‘blockages in energy fields’, which can be conveniently ‘unblocked’ by using our fingers to ‘tap’ on various acupressure points.
- TFT’s theoretical foundations have been described by the The Skeptical Inquirer as
“a hodgepodge of concepts derived from a variety of sources.” These include the Chinese philosophy of ‘chi’, acupuncture, kinesiology (another scientifically discredited pseudoscience), and even some concepts snatched (and misunderstood), from quantum physics. TFT is a casserole of catch phrases, a goulash of gish gallop.
- EFT is an offshoot of TFT, developed by Gary Craig in the 1990’s. Gary is not a health professional, but an engineer who was one of Callahan’s first ‘students.’ Apparently he paid $100 000 to Callahan for the ‘TFT training,’ and so presumably needed to make that money back. Which he certainly has, judging by the amount of expensive EFT courses on his website. Craig is nothing short of gushy when it comes to EFT. He claims it can fix literally any psychological condition, and his website claims that tapping can reduce therapy time from months or years to ‘minutes or hours’.
EFT research is decidedly dodgy, and any evidence for what looks like efficacy can be explained by the placebo effect, or by the confounding presence of techniques stolen from other theoretical models, such as relaxation techniques, distraction, or cognitive behaviour therapy.
The Bond University psychologist’s keynote address at the OBED conference confers a veneer of scientific plausibility to this discredited pseudoscientific claptrap. She is ‘credibility washing’ EFT to make it look like it is a thing. The grandiose title of the keynote speech bignotes EFT, giving the illusion that teams of scientists have been feverishly preparing the world for a new breakthrough method, when in fact she is referring to her own research.
Fiona and I spoke at length in the podcast about these research papers. Three have been published, but the first two papers are actually the same study. So ‘10 years of clinical trials’ actually means two of the presenter’s own research projects.
The first study recruited 96 people with ‘food cravings’ and gave them a 4 week course of EFT. They were then followed up 6 and 12 months later. Only 43 people came back at 12 months. No weight loss happened at 6 months, but when they followed people up a year later, there was weight loss (on average @5kgs). But something was fishy: the standard deviations were HUGE. Now I don’t want to bore you too much, but as Fiona & I discussed, when there are big standard deviations in research like this it is a ‘red flag’ indicating that some people in the sample were at much higher weights than the others. And because no standard deviation data was presented in the outcomes, we also suspected that one or two people in the research group (‘outliers’) had lost a huge amount of weight, and these unusual results would then impact on the results of the study. But of course,without standard deviation information, there wasn’t any way of telling what had actually happened from the data in the paper, so Fiona & I had to speculate.
Sometimes, the universe brings us unexpected gifts. As I was preparing the podcast to bring to air, a nine news article popped up – “How ‘tapping’ is helping people to shed kilos”. And you guessed it, here is our friend the Bond psychologist crowing about the incredible results of her revolutionary EFT program! And in it, she accidentally answered Fiona’s questions about the dodgy data in her research papers. She basically outed the outlier:
“One person who took part in a Bond University study on the psychological therapy lost 35kg in a year after eight weeks of tapping.”
BOOM! And thank you for proving our point. This one person is pretty much the only reason this paper found any statistically significant results.
And if it seems weird to you that people would do a 4 week tapping program, not lose any weight for 6 months, and then suddenly lose quite a bit a year later, I feel you! The paper offered no explanation for this strangely delayed weight loss effect. I have a few: it’s plausible that someone went on Optifast or another crash diet after the tapping program, so their ‘weight loss’ had nothing to do with tapping. Or, someone may have gotten sick. Pressure to please the researchers might have lead some participants to lie about their weight (the whole follow up relied on self-report). A whole host of things might have been at play to explain this very odd result, and it is just plain irritating that this question wasn’t raised.
Interestingly, the psychologist’s next published research paper showed completely different results: people in her 2016 research didn’t lose any weight at all from tapping. So any magic delayed weight loss effect was not replicated in the next experiment. Replication is everything in science, to prove that a result from a single intervention wasn’t just a one off. The 2016 paper did show that EFT reduced food cravings just as much as a CBT intervention, which proves to me that any impact of EFT is attributable to CBT components and has bugger all to do with tapping. But of course this wasn’t the conclusion she drew!
The EFT credibility washing push is definitely on, and this really worries me. They’re even using the good old ‘altering your brain’ claim which seems to be the new trend in raising the profile of crappy interventions. According to the news article,
“Her team has put patients in an MRI and scanned their brains before and after tapping to see it no longer lit up when shown pictures of foods they craved before the therapy.
“Their brains were quiet,” she said. “And they lost weight even if they never tapped again because they don’t want the food again.”
This is nothing new. Even back in the 1990’s our old friend Callahan was making similar claims of autonomic nervous system ‘re-balancing’ after TFT. The fact is, whenever we do ANYTHING to relax people, to put them at ease, their brains will ‘calm down’. This is evidence of relaxation, not ‘evidence’ of unblocked emotions. I could do an experiment where I get people to think about chocolate, then give them a hug, then stick them in an MRI and the same thing would happen. My ‘hug therapy’ has not magically recalibrated their inner hugginess meridian power chocolate reward system. I’ve just calmed them down.
The Bond psychologist breezily concludes the nine article with this nugget:
“We’ve now pretty much wrapped so much evidence around it, people can confidently go, ‘It’s not just this weird woo woo thing’ we’ve got so much evidence for its effectiveness,” she said.
This is not true. As Fiona & I discussed on the podcast, EFT is busily ‘wrapping’ itself in the trappings of plausibility, whilst steadfastly refusing to do proper research. Tapping IS a weird woo woo thing, and I’ve had a gutful!