Posted by: Dr. Jennifer Fee | November 23, 2010

Three Essential Tips for Successful Experiments

Real life experiments need not be this complicated!

My husband is a Scientist who spent many years running different kinds of experiments.  While I’m sad to admit that I don’t understand most of what he has done, I strongly believe that experiments that we do on our own lives are as important as any experiment conducted in a chemistry lab.  And, experiments done in both setting share one common principle:  the proper setup of an experiment is essential to the experiment’s success.  In my last post, Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained:  Experiments are Essential for Overcoming Anxiety, I highlight the need to be willing to form new beliefs and test them out in order to overcome situations that we avoid. Today I will highlight 3 essential tips for setting up successful experiments.

Tip #1:  Be Clear About What you are Testing Out
Randy is fearful of speaking in front of people. He figured out that he worries he will be say something that doesn’t make sense and then embarrass himself.  The new belief that wants to test out is:  “I do not have to be perfect when speaking in front of others.”  It’s important to have a clearly defined belief to test out, otherwise you will not have a way to gauge the result of your experiments.  It’s also helpful to rate how strongly you believe the new thought.  On a scale of 0-10, where a “0” is no belief at all and a “10” is it’s a deeply held, “no-doubt-about-it” belief, Randy rates this new belief as a “4.”
Tip #2:  Start with Small, Safe, Experiments that You Set Up.
Randy should not start his experiments by speaking to an audience of 200 people!  In fact, he may start by not speaking at all, rather Randy might start by observing other people speak.  He might listen to others, watch for when they make a mistake, stutter, or forget a point, and then observe how other people (including himself) respond to the speaker.  This is a slow, safe way to start testing out his new belief.
Along the lines of starting slow and safe is the idea that the best experiments are one that you set up, not ones that you wait for a situation to occur.  For example, if I wanted to practice being more friendly to people, I might pick three people to say “hello” to rather than waiting for someone to say hello to me.  You have much more control if you set up the experiment rather than waiting for the opportunity to come to you.
Tip #3:  Don’t Draw Conclusions From Just One Experiment, Do Lots of Them!
It’s not reasonable to draw sweeping conclusions from just one experiment.  Whether the first experiment goes well or poorly, you don’t really know if the result is a fluke or provides true evidence that your new belief is true.  Just like a scientist runs many experiments to test his (or her) hypotheses, you must try many, many experiments to test your new belief.  Remember that Randy rated is new belief a “4” at the beginning?  It may still stay a “4” after three or four experiments.  However, after 10, 15, or 20 experiments that mostly go well, Randy’s belief is likely to rise much higher.
There’s a lot more to say about experiments. Stay tuned!!
–Dr. Jennifer Fee


  1. Hey. Great post. Sounds so easy, yet I know it’s not. I think gradual exposure is essential for learning to manage social anxiety. It’s just hard to find adequate situations in which you can practice at the level where you’re at. For example, tomorrow, I’m going over to a house with 14 people for Thanksgiving. This is too much for me, but it’s not like I can say no–I have to go. I’ve been trying to reframe my experience tomorrow as an experiment, to test out some of my new cognitive strategies. We’ll see how it goes.

    • Thanks Mike, I agree about the gradual exposure. I’m finding it a bit difficult to write about very specific experiments in a blog post-since they tend to be unique to an individual’s circumstances…..but I’m working on it!!! How did Thanksigiving go for you?

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