The Pitfalls of Testimonials

When searching for a great restaurant or choosing a movie to go see, often we consider the personal reports of neighbors, work associates and friends. Why not? Their “testimonies” give us a quick method for judging the probability that a particular restaurant or movie will be a good investment. Of course, our friends and associates are not always right, but their testimonials serve as either shortcuts or as corroboration of other sources of information (e.g., restaurant or movie reviews). As such, they contribute to efficient decision-making about relatively low-stakes events. Here’s what you need to know about the pitfalls of testimonials.

the pitfalls of testimonials

We commonly see testimonials made by happy consumers presented by marketers of autism treatments. Indeed, testimonials are a standard feature on for pills, exercises, devices, interventions and therapies to potentially unwary consumers. Many testimonials take the form of simple, quoted statements (e.g., “The [marketed treatment] has had an amazing effect on my son!”). On the internet, video testimonials may be particularly compelling. Marketers know that the testimonials of some people, including attractive people, familiar celebrities, and people who may remind the potential consumer of him — or herself may be particularly effective. Adding pleasant theme music and using artful filming may complete the effect and increase the probability that families separate from their hard-earned money.

But, how should we use testimonial evidence in selecting potential autism treatments? When confronted with testimonials about possible autism treatments, it is recommended that families be especially cautious, particularly when the testimonials are the only source of support for the intervention. Marketers can find a few individuals who provide testimony that their product is effective, even when the product is wholly ineffective. This is because, as consumers, our opinions about the quality of a product — including perceived effectiveness — are colored by our previous experience, what we have been told by others, and our expectations. Furthermore, because human behavior — including the behavior of individuals with autism — is variable (i.e., changes across time), a treatment benefit may appear to exist, even when it does not exist at all.

For example, imagine that a marketer sold a “special” trampoline to 100 parents with the guarantee that daily use of the trampoline by their child would “open learning channels” and “promote language acquisition”. Of those 100 parents, it is reasonable to expect that at least a small number of them — perhaps 5 or 10% — may report that the product “seems to help”, even if the trampoline is not at all effective as an intervention in the way described by the marketer. A savvy marketer is watching for members of this small subgroup of consumers as their source of new testimonials!

And, how about all of the parents who purchased the trampoline and, subsequently recognized that it did not “open learning channels” and “promote language acquisition”? You can be assured that their opinions will not grace the marketer’s website, social media or glossy print advertisement. As a result, the marketers promote an illusion of product effectiveness where one may not exist at all.

It is for these reasons that parents and other consumers of autism “treatments” are cautioned to view testimonials skeptically. Testimonials are a wonderful way for business people to market merchandise but a poor way for families to determine true effectiveness of a treatment, device or intervention. Decisions regarding autism treatment are best guided by the scientific record, as supplied by trusted sources (e.g., a competent physician, psychologist or other autism expert). When it comes to making decisions about expensive autism interventions and the allocation of precious resources, persons with autism — and their families — deserve nothing less.

Cite This:

Mruzek, D. W. (2012). The pitfalls of testimonials. Science in Autism Treatment, 9(2), 12

 About The Author

Daniel W. Mruzek, Ph.D., BCBA-D is an Associate Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), Division of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics in western New York. He received his doctoral training in Psychology at the Ohio State University and is a former Program Director at the Groden Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Currently, he is an associate professor and serves as a clinician and consultant, training school teams and supporting families of children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Mruzek coordinates his division’s psychology postdoctoral fellowship program in developmental disabilities and is an adjunct faculty member in the University of Rochester Warner School of Education. He is actively involved as a researcher on several externally funded autism intervention research studies and has authored and co-authored more than 20 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on autism and other developmental disabilities. Dr. Mruzek is on the editorial board for the journals Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, Behavior Analysis in Practice, Journal of Mental Health Research in Developmental Disabilities, and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Dr. Mruzek is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.

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