Not really experiments, are they?

a focused experiment

I’ve had this helpful challenge about the safe experiments I offer on this website.

A contact has a scientific background and he was aware that ‘experiment’ is a word that should meet some conditions. My explanation of the small safe experiment does not accord with a conventional understanding of the word, experiment.

The additional words, small and safe, make a large difference to me

One website describes the scientific method as “The prime method of inquiry in science is the experiment. The key features are control over variables, careful measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.

An experiment is an investigation in which a hypothesis is scientifically tested. In an experiment, an independent variable (the cause) is manipulated and the dependent variable (the effect) is measured; any extraneous variables are controlled.”

A hypothesis, here, is a test: what do you predict will be the result? The experiment is so designed that a relationship between the two ‘variables’ is identified. Thus, I change the feeding pattern for a specific plant and I notice the impact of that change on the way a plant germinates, grows and dies. We predict that one pattern of feed will have ‘x‘ outcome and another pattern of feed will produce ‘y‘ outcome.

The limits of a scientific approach

For me, the ‘scientific’ method presents a problem;  on this web site, I discourage you from ‘hypotheses’ in favour of  doing something and just noticing what happens. Indeed, ‘just noticing’ is one very early safe experiment I describe. I call the actions ‘experiments’ but I do not want you to assume you can know the outcome.  True, there may be a guess in your mind about what might happen but be aware that simply observing the experiment can make things appear, just as you expected. Predicting the outcome can simply make it so – as quantum physicists have concluded!

On this website, some uncertainty – indeed, some curiosity –  is needed to allow an experiment to run its course and be helpful. Beware of assuming what might happen!

Notice what happens when we make assumptions: hidden meanings and judgements permeate the English language. Even scientific papers use judgemental language and that can be a real problem if it enters the world of therapy. Consider this extract [the emphases are mine]:

recent models of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) have expanded on Borkovec’s avoidance theory by delineating emotion regulation de?cits associated with the excessive worry characteristic of this disorder (see Behar, DiMarco, Hekler, Mohlman, & Staples, 2009).

not identified

Four lines in this learned Paper contain three English prejudicial words that highlight the problem that arises when one or individuals takes it upon themselves to say what deficits are associated with excessive worry enough to produce a disorder! All this requires a lot of judgement and its worth asking who makes that judgement. Science is not always such a rational process as first appears. It is not a model to follow carelessly.

Small and creative: Not looking for ’cause’

Thus, in my own small, safe experiments I make a virtue of asking only you to take on a task only for yourself. Others are not exactly like you; what works for you might not work for some-one else.

Also, I emphasise that there are very few clear causes-and-effects.  True, the Road Map experiment can show how single events can radically shape the direction of your life. Things are very different when I have an accident and end up with a disability or, on a happier note, when I marry and start to learn the art of negotiation with another human being. Note, however, even then, my adjustment to disability varies from your adjustment. Certainly, the success or failure of negotiations after marriage vary in many ways and many of us have found that out when we tried it.

So, controlling the lives of humans is not easy; many try to do this and get anxious about that struggle. Even when we succeed,  some seem unhappy with the results!

This website describes a large number of actions you can take to promote change in your life.  As I have said elsewhere, none of those actions will work for all and everyone. By the same token, few will be of no use to anyone (I have been selective!!).

How are you going to find out what works for you?

Wait for me to tell you?

Simply try it out for yourself and see what happens?

Now I can hear you warn me that there is a problem with just trying things out. There can be major unforeseen consequences. I do not want you to ‘walk into the Valley of Death’ unwittingly. That is why I want the experiments to be small and safe; so you can step back when you notice a small defeat – and use that experience to your own benefit.

When you do not know what the consequence of your action will be, it is best that the action you take is small; it is retrievable, you can step back and recover things, just as we do with the ‘backspace’ on our computer keyboards.

Also, my term ‘safe‘ encourages you to devise and pursue experiments with caution. I discourage the large leap into the unknown. Elsewhere, I use the metaphor of not crossing the Grand Canyon on a tight-rope only to find yourself on the other side – but in the wrong place.

Translate and stay curious

I want you to translate what I am saying so it fits into your world. If this does not happen, then this web site is simply another of many ‘self-help’ aids. We read the advice but do not absorb its meaning or apply it in our daily lives. Nothing changes.


Find a self help book. Open it up at one page on a random basis. Try not to choose the page with any conscious thought.

Study that one page carefully and consider the Robin-mantra:

“What one small thing could I now do differently in view of what I have read on this one page?”

If the timing is right, and the book is in your hand at the right time, then those ‘right’ words may well help you change something today or tomorrow. Whether it is for the better, or for the worse, you cannot know until you try it.

An unhappy outcome is a ‘small defeat’ and an happy outcome is a ‘small victory’.

With a scientific experiment it is often the case that we cannot afford a small defeat. Lives might depend on a good outcome. However, in my experience, small safe experiments generate most learning from our small defeats. This is not an original thought. In the 1700’s, the Parliamentarian and philosopher,  Edmund Burke said:

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

Both defeats and victories are really helpful in identifying what you do after that.

What are the alternatives?

I have said my words are only a guide – a finger-pointing exercise. Where my words get in the way, find a language that works for you.

If it helps, I can see a few alternatives open to you:

  1. Look at the ‘experiments’ as homework. This would follow a Cognitive Behavioural (CBT) tradition. I have not used this term myself. In my early years in professional practice I found the notion of ‘homework’ acted as a deterrent to me; something given to me for my own good. I was not very receptive to that idea! I did better when I found out things for myself.
  2. Look at experiments as ‘tasks‘. When I was a social worker, task-centred work was an important point-of-view. The problem with the task-centred perspective was that ‘clients’ did not find it is easy to generate their own tasks. Too often, the principles of good practice were compromised by the schedule of a busy social worker and the task became a ‘prescription’. OK, most of us know that this can be a dis-empowering action, but disempowerment is what a lot of us can do without noticing it. I bet there are parts of this web site that do this!
  3. Prescriptions can be OK for some people. There is a modern movement towards social prescription. This arises when a doctor realises that medicine seems not to be working and, with a patient’s permission,  the doctor seeks practical help from the community agencies.  I am a Trustee for a domestic abuse programme in my community; the paid staff could be asked to help a patient. Social prescribing is seen as a component of personalised care made available by link workers give people time and attention; taking a holistic approach to people’s health and well-being.

To finish up, I want to mention that, in my experience, effective tasks/experiments follow a scenic route to any change.  The route to change is not a straight line.  The diagrams demonstrate how energy has to be directed to simply thinking about change before we act.

Change can bring unintended consequences that can hurt or hinder. Others are liberated but we are never too sure which way the dice will fall. The way to work it out is to make mistakes, back track when necessary and learn from the unexpected.

Also, of course, I want to value and savour my successes when they do come.

What would be your alternative?

Further lines of enquiry

What is a nudge

How to do small, safe experiments

Types of safe experiments; if you want some categories