The Paradox of Testimonials:  Why They are Unethical and Why We Can’t Stop Using Them

By Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA

CEO of World Evolve, Inc.

It was a hot and overcast day in May 2015, and I was standing dangerously close to the water in the middle of San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk, just outside of the ABAI conference hotel.  My mouth was half-opened and parched, my fingers were tapping frantically on my conference program book, and uncomfortably loud pangs were emanating from my stomach.  I was hungry and in a hurry; I needed to find something to eat but I didn’t know where to go.  I hadn’t eaten for six hours, and was consistently reminded of this fact as the inter-response time of each pang seeming to shorten by the minute.

As my eyes scanned the horizon of restaurants, cafes, and bistros, my gaze locked in on a Texas-sized steakhouse with offensively bright green neon lights forming a silhouette of a bull-riding cowboy. In spite of the slightly garish sign, my stomach begrudgingly growled its approval at the choice, and I told myself ‘I have to eat here before leaving San Antonio’.

As the messages traveled with haste down from my brain to the muscles of my body instructing them to put one foot in front of the next and enter this appealing culinary establishment, an emergency correspondence broke my stride and raced to intervene.  This directive came with special subtext “Check Yelp, before eating there!” it warned.  Paralyzed by confusion and driven by a compulsion to follow these previously conditioned orders, I squeezed my hand down into my pocket and clumsily wiggled my phone loose from the depths of my jeans.  After scrapping the sides of my hands on the inside of my pocket and subsequently failing to unlock my phone with touch ID, I franticly entered in the pass code manually and entered Yelp.

To my delight, this restaurant had received fantastic reviews!  It had an aggregate score of 4.5 stars out of 5.  Ignoring all of my prior training in behavior analysis, I briefly reveled in the composite score, before promptly dashing inside the restaurant and ordering a libation to celebrate my triumph and sate my stomach. After finishing my tasty meal, I slowly meandered down the hallways of the conference hotel with a full belly in search of the next symposium I was to attend. 

Once I found my seat and sat down, I, like most behavior analysts recalled the sequence of behavior that led me to discover such a reinforcing experience.  As I considered this chain of behavior, I began to consider the contingencies that shaped it and began conducting a private indirect assessment.  “Why was I so determined to check the reviews?”, I asked myself.  To which I replied “The answer to most ‘why?s’ is usually a history of conditioning. You did something in the past, it was followed shortly thereafter by something beneficial and, voila: your behavior increased.”    

After returning from the conference unsatisfied with the results of my internal assessment, I decided to do some research on testimonials in our field and found the following posts from what appeared to be consumers of behavior analysis services: 

“Great therapist, would recommend to everyone!”, “Wonderful personality, always treated our family with respect.”, “Our baby boy loved her!  You have to try her services!”

Sound familiar?  Unfortunately, these reviews and others like them are all too recognizable across the annals of behavior analytic websites and social media.  Our behavior has been conditioned, apparently, over time to utilize these skewed opinions regardless of their value to consumers or their compliance with our code of ethics. Currently, our ethical behavior as a field is rule-governed, and the powers that be take a deontological approach to ethical decision making – an approach where one’s behavior is deemed ethical or not through its adherence or non-adherence to a code of ethics. 

Regarding testimonials, this is what is stipulated in the Professional Ethical and Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts in section 8.05: 

“Behavior analysts do not solicit or use testimonials about behavior-analytic services from current clients for publication on their webpages or in any other electronic or print material. Testimonials from former clients must identify whether they were solicited or unsolicited, include an accurate statement of the relationship between the behavior analyst and the author of the testimonial, and comply with all applicable laws about claims made in the testimonial.”

Often, the attitude is “What’s the big deal? It’s just a review of our services, it’s not hurting anyone. Everyone uses testimonials.”  However, as an item in the compliance code, using testimonials inappropriately IS an example of unethical behavior.  Moreover, once January 1st rolls around, we will be held to those standards whether we agree with them or not.

But why is it unethical?  What makes a testimonial unsuited for use by behavior analysts? 

The problem really begins with what a testimonial is – a subjective account of someone’s experience with a particular product or service.  This definition presents a problem specific to behavior analysts, as we don’t deal in subjectivity, we traffic in objectivity.

If you break down a testimonial further, you eventually reach the conclusion that a testimonial is simply information – information about someone or something that you are considering interacting with, but information nonetheless.  And as consumers, we want our information to be trustworthy so that we can make better, more informed decisions.  We behavior analysts use a similar principle with another type of information that we value and hope is trustworthy… our data.  We even have rules that help to govern the trustworthiness of our data – namely validity, reliability, and accuracy.  So shouldn’t the same rules apply to testimonials?  Is what the consumer is saying really what’s important for others to know as potential consumers of that product or service? And, if asked again, would the person giving the testimonial say the same thing?

For those who still feel that consumer information is not as important as scientific data, consider the following:

For example, someone reads a testimonial when looking for a financial advisor and finds a review stating “______ (Name of advisor) is great!!! I have made so much money with him, he is like a magician, I send him money and sends me back more money! I love _____, I’m naming my firstborn after him!” They then take on that financial advisor as a result of the testimonial. A few years down the road, someone else reads this testimonial, and discovers that the name filling in the blank space was Bernie Madoff.

There are also cosmetic issues with testimonials, for example: 

  1. As a business owner, would you only post POSITIVE testimonials on your site or would you also include negative ones? 
  2. And if you DID post negative comments, where would you post them? At the TOP of the site?  Or at the BOTTOM of the site, where no one would notice? 
  3. If a client of yours changed their testimonial one day because you didn’t give them something that they wanted, would you update their post with the new, negative post?

This is why behavior analysis puts such a strong emphasis on objective outcome data, thereby avoiding the testimonials’ inherent subjectivity and lack of trustworthiness. It avoids ‘spur of the moment’ reviews from a temporarily happy or unhappy consumer, and it even avoids unethical behavior from a  concerned business owner looking to increase sales. Testimonials could almost be seen as akin to talk-therapy, where the patient describes how they feel at the moment, but that report may or may NOT be accurate or reliable if asked again in the future.

Overall, the sharing of information amongst consumers is undoubtedly important: it helps keep purveyors of products and services honest when interacting with the public, and it gives consumers peace of mind. However, it is essential that this shared information is credible in order to achieve the aforementioned goal. 

So please don’t misunderstand, I am not advocating for AVOIDING the use of testimonials. In fact, quite the opposite: information sharing is a critical part of the zeitgeist within today’s culture, the suggestion is that we do it ETHICALLY.

So, how could people start using testimonials ethically? 

Well, to start, testimonials would need to be re-defined, in observable and measureable terms.

Make sure to present to your consumers what evidenced based services you offer and how they can be measured before starting your service.

Post objective outcome data (in accordance with all associated regulatory boards and laws) as your testimonial, indicating whether or not you met or exceeded the original projected outcomes and how often this occurred. This could be presented visually, ensuring people can analyze the trends on a graph.

Do research on how to ethically post information about your service or product, utilizing a morally pluralistic view of ethical decision-making that takes contextual variables into account. 

So remember: sharing information with your consumers is important and valued by the people we serve, however, if you are going to use testimonials please make sure to do it like a behavior analyst does it…with objective data.

Let us know your thoughts on testimonials in the comments below and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

References: 

Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. (2015, August 11). Retrieved December 5, 2015, from http://bacb.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/150824-compliance-code-english.pdf

AVV_MG_9885Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA is a graduate of Florida International University and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2008. Adam is the founder and CEO of World Evolve, Inc., a behavioral organization located in south Florida. Adam has been working in the field of applied behavior analysis for over 10 years and has experience working with children and adults with varying disabilities. Adam was a member of the local review committee in Miami, Florida for over three years and is currently a member of the behavior analysis and practice committee (BAPC) for the state of Florida. Adam also currently serves an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Florida International University where he has been teaching undergraduate courses in behavior analysis since 2009. Adam is also the co-founder of two public benefit corporations, namely, The Code Of Ethics for Behavioral Organizations (COEBO) and the Miami Association for Behavior Analysis (MiABA). Adam’s experience has extended beyond the clinical realm and into the business world as he has been responsible for creating several new businesses with and without partners in various industries. Adam’s current focus is on business ethics and technological applications of Behavior Analysis.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 Comments on "The Paradox of Testimonials:  Why They are Unethical and Why We Can’t Stop Using Them"

  1. It seems to me that it is not the use of testimonials that is unethical, but how they are used. If “consumers” of a product or service are aware that testimonials should be taken with a grain of salt because they can be biased (and usually are in one way or another), then they understand that their results or experiences may not be the same as those who wrote publicly about their experiences. People being individuals changes how others’ interact with them, even behaviorists who are as objective as possible, need to take this into consideration and may treat one person differently than another depending on each person’s demeanor, attitudes, personalities, triggers, or what have you. Testimonials become a question of ethics when they are purposely skewed by the goods/service providers, such as, mentioned in this piece, when negative/positive comments are removed or rearranged in order to better appeal to potential consumers, or when written by the provider of those goods/services with the purposeful intent to entice potential consumers under false pretenses of being a consumer themselves. Knowing that testimonials are based more on one’s own perception/opinion makes it collectible data, much like any other survey, this not unethical, but it’s factual reliability, validity, and accuracy should be taken as such rather than declared as fact with no room for error.

  2. How interesting! I’m not a behavior analyst, but am interested in how we humans are seduced by “the story” rather than “the data.” Love your ideas about ethical posting of testimonials, including negative ones, and am thinking about ways to post data and outcomes regarding my own professional efforts.

  3. Another question that comes to mind is: How do behavior analysts who are employed by an organisation react when the organisation uses testimonials that relate to their duties? If, as an example, you are employed by a school and the school uses anecdotal evidence and testimonials when providing evidence of their effectiveness or in reports to governmental bodies, what does the behavior analyst do? In some situations, the schools may even be encouraged by state bodies to submit the kind of data that we do not typically use ourselves due to its subjectivity.

    Using data for testimonials can be problematic. For example, if using data based on reaching pre-agreed goals, this may lead to a culture where targets are set at low levels or where single objectives are broken into smaller components than they might otherwise be (e.g. if teaching somebody to play basketball, a goal that previously might have been set as “learns to follow the rules of basketball” might be broken into several goals like bouncing, catching etc.). If using assessment data (e.g. VBMAPP), the fact that somebody increase their overall score might look impressive, but was it actually impressive for that learner given the trajectory of their development? For another learner, a small increase might on the assessment might actually be the result of the skilled application of an experienced behavior analysts knowledge and training.

  4. I loved the narrative leading up to the primary content (you’re a very good story teller… I felt your despair for food as a I was reading it). I thought your points about the use of ethical testimonies were excellent and important considerations, particularly for the human service industry. Testimonial’s is a topic that has been relatively untouched and you did a fantastic job bringing it to light.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*