Dubious Claims in Psychotherapy for Youth Part III: Externalizing Issues and Daily Routines

Stephen Hupp, Blake Smith, Harriet Hall, Joe Nickell, Leanna Kehl, Miranda Meeker, Natalie Newell, Robert S. Feldman

This is the third and final installment of a three-part series that shares the sidebars from the book Pseudoscience in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy (edited by Stephen Hupp, Cambridge University Press, 2019). Contributors for this installment include a film director, a paranormal investigator, a family physician, a podcast producer, a social psychologist, and two graduate students in a clinical child psychology program. Topics covered include symptoms related to feeding, eating, toileting, sleep, behavior problems, and substance use.

Feeding: Should Parents Avoid Feeding Their Children GMOs?

Natalie Newell

When people refer to “GMOs,” they are usually referring to crops that are developed with genetic engineering (i.e., genetically modified organisms), which is a more precise type of plant breeding (GMO Answers N.d.). Of course, most of our food has been modified over time through various breeding methods, but some parents may be hesitant to feed their children GMOs because of the “frankenfood” myths attached to genetic engineering. However, as Kavin Senapathy notes in the Science Moms documentary, “You can ask the question, ‘How many people have gotten sick, died, gotten cancer, even gotten a cold or a cough as the result of eating GMOs?’ And the answer is zero. There hasn’t even been a sniffle associated with consuming an ingredient or product derived from a GMO” (Newell 2017). The body of evidence gathered from studying genetically modified crops since their introduction three decades ago shows that genetically modified products pose no greater health risk than their conventionally bred counterparts (Nicolia et al. 2014). Most food experts suggest that parents focus on encouraging their children to develop a healthy relationship with food, without spending unnecessary time and energy worrying about how the ingredients were bred.

Eating: Is It Possible for Breatharians to Live without Food or Water?

Joe Nickell

Some mystics claim to practice inedia—that is, to suspend all eating and, sometimes, even drinking. But are inedics genuine, or do they deceive—either themselves or others? In 1980, a cult founded by Wiley Brooks raised just such questions; he espoused not only giving up eating meat but eventually living off nothing but light and air!

Since ancient times, extreme fasting has taken a variety of cultural forms. For example, there were visionaries who (like Jesus in Matthew 4:1–11) went into the wilderness to fast, hoping to thereby experience holy revelations. And in the early Christian era, mostly male hermits subsisted on bread and water to contemplate the world’s end.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a religious fasting fad attracted women such as the future Saint Catherine of Sienna (1347–1380). She imagined demonic torture, exhibited the stigmata, and experienced visions—which the author of Holy Anorexia attributed to “an eating/vomiting pattern typical of acute anorexia.” Being vainglorious, he says, Catherine “starved herself to death.” A very late example of this type was Therese Neumann (1898–1962), whom suspicious church authorities monitored. Tests of her urine revealed that after fasting she had, secretly, resumed intake of food and drink. (For more on this, see Nickell [2017].)

The nineteenth century tended to see inedics more as prodigies than holy persons and included sideshow artists styled as “Living Skeletons.” Finally, first described scientifically in 1868, came those recognized as having anorexia, whose refusal of food stems from emotional conflict.

As to Wiley Brooks—who espoused reverting from carnivorism to vegetarianism, then fruitarianism, liquidarianism, and finally to breatharianism—his followers’ faith was badly shaken when Brooks was discovered making nighttime forays to buy junk food.

Toileting: Does Self-Acupressure Work for Constipation?

Harriet Hall

Constipation is a common complaint, affecting between 1 and 30 percent of children. It can sometimes be due to underlying diseases; however, it is usually “functional,” meaning the child is healthy but has difficulty defecating. Sometimes the stool is hard and difficult to pass, and sometimes a child is simply unwilling to defecate because of a previous painful bowel movement or other psychological factors. Functional constipation is usually treated with dietary changes, laxatives, and behavioral modification.

A less conventional treatment is perineal acupressure, where the area between the scrotum or vagina and the anus is massaged. A randomized, controlled study in adults in 2014 (Abbott et al. 2015) found that self-acupressure was effective for constipation, improving both bowel function and quality of life. Applying finger pressure to the perineum in intermittent pulses is supposed to break up the hard stool in the rectum, making it easier to pass. For females, using a finger in the vagina would probably work even better but might not be as readily accepted. This is essentially a noninvasive method of disimpaction that has nothing to do with acupressure.

It purportedly uses the Ren 1 acupoint, an imaginary point on the perineum that is said to nourish Kidney Yin and resolve Damp-Heat. Sticking needles in that spot is used in traditional acupuncture to treat everything from constipation and hemorrhoids to loss of consciousness, asphyxiation from drowning, and manic psychosis! Acupressure is a variant of acupuncture, a prescientific treatment system based on myths. Acupuncture has been extensively studied and found to be a theatrical placebo (Colquhoun and Novella 2013).

So perineal “acupressure” stripped of the Oriental mumbo-jumbo is simply perineal massage, or perhaps it would be better to call it transperineal fecal disimpaction. The study has not been replicated, and the treatment has not been studied in children. Might it help? Possibly, because we know manual disimpaction (using a gloved finger in the rectum to break up the stool and scoop it out) is effective. But what if there is no hard stool in the rectum? For adults, I don’t see any real downside to trying self-acupressure/perineal massage; it’s unlikely to cause any harm. For small children, it would be harder to justify. Having an adult massage a child’s perineum for constipation has not been studied. Due to the connotations of touching that area, I can’t help but wonder whether it might be associated in some minds with suspicions of sexual abuse. For more on this topic, see Hall (2014).

Sleep: Do Aliens Abduct People While They Are Sleeping?

Blake Smith

Since the alleged alien abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill in September of 1961, stories of people being abducted by aliens have become quite popular and have developed some very specific patterns. These stories often involve frightening accounts of people waking to find they are paralyzed and surrounded by entities they perceive as extraterrestrials. Movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and books such as Whitley Strieber’s Communion have provided a template for what these alleged alien abductions look like.

The good news is that there is no credible evidence that anyone is actually being taken by aliens to be experimented on. But that doesn’t mean the people reporting it are lying. Several interesting psychological effects may be going on in these cases. First, for the sincere experiencer, the sensation of being paralyzed and sensing creatures, monsters, or evil intelligences is quite common and can be explained by a sleep condition called “sleep paralysis” (Blackmore 1998). When you have normal sleep, your body becomes paralyzed during your dream state, which is helpful to prevent you from acting out your dreams. But in sleep paralysis, something gets out of synch. Your mind wakes up, yet your body is still paralyzed. People often report a heavy pressure on their chest and the inability to move—but it usually passes fairly quickly. It is a frightening experience, but it is not dangerous, supernatural, paranormal, or extraterrestrial (Sagan 1996).

The other effect going on in many alien abduction stories happens when therapists hypnotize victims and try to help them “recover” their memories. Such recovered memories are extremely unreliable, and it is possible that the hypnotist may be actually helping create false memories. Investigations have shown that the people performing these memory recovery sessions are likely helping to create or enhance the victim’s memory with untrustworthy narratives that fit their interest in alien abductions (Clancy 2005).

Modern physics and astronomy suggest that it is extremely unlikely that any aliens are actually visiting Earth and conducting experiments, but for the sufferer of sleep paralysis or the victim of false memories, it could be very difficult to shake the belief that something very unusual has happened.

Disruptive Behavior and Conduct: Is Lying Always a Sign of Psychological Problems?

Robert S. Feldman

American society certainly seeks to promote honesty. Consider national icons such as George Washington, who is recalled as never telling a lie, or Abe Lincoln, whose nickname is Honest Abe. More recently, consider the negative reaction to modern day presidents when they get caught lying. Our concerns about the act of lying go even further: persistent lying is seen as symptomatic of a considerable number of psychological disorders, including oppositional defiant disorder (i.e., falsely blaming others) and conduct disorder (i.e., lies for own benefit).

Yet if we look at decades of psychological research, the realities about lying and deception are quite different. In fact, lying is not only ubiquitous, but studies suggest that lying is actually a social skill that promotes effective interaction with others. Consider evidence from a study that I conducted with children and early adolescents. In it, my colleagues and I found that as children grew into adolescents, they became more effective liars—that is, it was harder to detect deception in children as they got older, a finding that has been confirmed by a considerable body of research. But what was particularly intriguing was that the greater the deception skills of adolescents, the better were their social skills, as judged by their teachers and parents. In other words, the most socially skilled adolescents were also the ones who were the most effective liars (Feldman 2010; Lavoie et al. 2017; Talwar and Lee 2008).

Although one extreme interpretation of this finding is that lying somehow makes you popular, that seems unlikely. More probable is that socially competent adolescents may understand better the value of providing supportive but not necessarily accurate information (“you did a great job on that class presentation”), or they know when to withhold information that is unwelcome to others, potentially because it is hurtful (“you seem to be putting on weight”).

Coupled with findings that lying is frequent in everyday life (on average, lies occur at a rate of around three lies in ten minutes during interactions between those who are meeting for the first time; Feldman et al. 2002), these results suggest that lies per se are not a good indicant of psychological disorder. Indeed, one could argue the opposite: that lying, at least in moderation, is a sign of psychological health.

Substance Use: Are Specialized Goggles Effective at Preventing Impaired Driving?

Miranda Meeker and LeAnna Kehl 

Specialized goggles are used in demonstrations in schools and on college campuses in the United States and internationally to simulate feelings of intoxication among their users. The goggles sufficiently impair a user’s ability to see by altering his or her perceptual field. The individuals chosen to wear the goggles are often asked to participate in a variety of sobriety tasks, sports, games, or simulated driving (Innocorp, ltd. N.d.a). The goggles tend to create a feeling of being unbalanced, making these tasks difficult. In addition to the various tasks, students often watch testimonials from the families of victims of impaired driving accidents.

Although this tool was used before any well-designed research had been conducted to study its effectiveness, the company selling the product claimed that this tool was an evidence-based educational product that could be used to teach the potential consequences of misusing and abusing alcohol (Innocorp, ltd. N.d.b). These goggles are often used as a preventative measure to demonstrate the impaired ability to drive. Although many people believe that these goggles are an effective preventative tool, there are no studies that provide sufficient evidence that this tool actually reduces impaired driving.

One randomized controlled study provided evidence that individuals wearing the goggles did initially become less accepting of impaired driving immediately after using the goggles when compared to the control group. Yet the individuals watching the demonstration did not report a significant change in their attitudes toward impaired driving when compared to the control group (Jewell et al. 2004). In addition, when attitude changes were examined four weeks after the demonstration, this change was not upheld (Jewell and Hupp 2005). Also, when students were asked about their self-reported behavior rather than their attitudes alone, the individuals in the goggles group did not report engaging in risky driving behavior less than the control group. Overall, there is very little evidence indicating that specialized goggles are effective at preventing impaired driving.


The authors are listed in the order that their work appears in the book. Authors were only involved in their own sidebar and were not involved in writing or editing the other sidebars.


Abbott, R., I. Ayres, E. Hui, et al. 2015. Effect of perineal self-acupressure on constipation: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of General Internal Medicine 30(4): 434–439.

Blackmore, S. 1998. Abduction by aliens or sleep paralysis? Skeptical Inquirer 22(3): 23–28.

Clancy, S.A. 2005. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Colquhoun, D., and S.P. Novella. 2013. Acupuncture is theatrical placebo. Anesthesia & Analgesia 116(6): 1360–1363.

Feldman, R.S. 2010. The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships. New York: Twelve/Hachette.

Feldman, R.S., J.A. Forrest, and B.H. Happ. 2002. Self-presentation and verbal deception: Do self-presenters lie more? Basic and Applied Social Psychology 24(2): 163–170.

GMO Answers. N.d. What is a GMO? Available online at https://gmoanswers.com.

Hall, H. 2014. Study of “acupressure” for constipation. Available online at https://sciencebasedmedicine.org.

Innocorp, Ltd. N.d.a Fatal Vision®Roadster – Pedal Kart (only). Available online at https://fatalvision.com.

———. N.d.b. Fatal Vision® Community Event Pack. Available online at https://fatalvision.com.

Jewell, J., and S.D. Hupp. 2005. Examining the effects of fatal vision goggles on changing attitudes and behaviors related to drinking and driving. Journal of Primary Prevention 26(6): 553–565.

Jewell, J., S. Hupp, and G. Luttrell. 2004. The effectiveness of fatal vision goggles: Disentangling experiential versus onlooker effects. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education 48(3): 63–84.

Lavoie, J., S. Yachison, A. Crossman, et al. 2017. Polite, instrumental, and dual liars: Relation to children’s developing social skills and cognitive ability. International Journal of Behavioral Development 41(2): 257–264.

Newell, N. (director and producer). 2017. Science Moms (documentary). United States: Independently produced.

Nickell, J. 2017. Mystery of Mollie Fancher, the ‘fasting girl,’ and others who lived without eating. Skeptical Inquirer 41(6): 18–21.

Nicolia, A., A. Manzo, F. Veronesi, et al. 2014. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical Reviews in Biotechnology 34(1): 77–88.

Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.

Talwar, V., and K. Lee. 2008.  Little liars: Origins of verbal deception in children. In S. Itakura, K. Fujita, S. Itakura, et al. (eds.). Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary and Developmental Views. New York: Springer, 157–178.

Stephen Hupp

Stephen Hupp, PhD, is a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is editor of Pseudoscience in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy (reviewed in our September/October 2019 issue) and coauthor of the books Great Myths of Child Development, Great Myths of Adolescence, and Thinking Critically about Child Development4th Edition. He also currently holds the Guinness World Record for the “longest line of books.” On Twitter he is @StephenHupp.

Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.