From Laughter to Learning: Dr. Switzer was not entirely wrong

In 1997, American comedian Bob Newhart surprised the public with an absurd sketch about a therapist, Dr. Switzer, whose method of advice seems completely ridiculous at first glance. However, this humorous portrayal highlights a deeper truth about behavior change.

The sketch: therapy in 5 minutes

Catherine enters the room and meets Dr. Switzer, who tells her about his unique fee structure: $5 for the first five minutes, but after that the session is free. He assures her that their conversation will not last more than five minutes. When Catherine shares her problem, a fear of being buried alive in a box and a lingering claustrophobia, Dr. Switzer gives her simple and direct advice: “Stop it!”

Catherine is confused by this advice. Dr. Switzer confirms that he literally means that she should stop being afraid. When Catherine addresses other issues such as bulimia and destructive relationships, Dr. Switzer's advice: "Stop it!" At the end of the session, when Catherine expresses her frustration with the treatment, Dr. Switzer if she thinks the therapy is moving too fast. In response to her affirmation, he gives her ten words that will clarify everything: "Stop it or I'll bury you alive in a box!"

The importance of stopping what doesn't work

This sketch causes bursts of laughter because of the absurd situation. The therapist seems totally uninterested in his client and his advice is ridiculously simplistic. But humor can make us think about reality.

I used to be convinced that it was much more important to know what works than what doesn't work. My assumption was that by focusing on what works, you would make progress, while the non-working behavior would often fade or die out more or less on its own.

I still think that a focus on doing what works is very valuable. But I no longer think that the non-working always disappears by itself. If you want to eat healthier, it is not enough to eat broccoli more often. It is also necessary to eat fewer chips. If you want to live a healthier life, it is not enough to move more. It is also necessary to stop smoking or limit your alcohol consumption.

If you want your students to be better motivated, it is necessary not only to give them more freedom of choice, but also to stop threatening them with punishment if they do something wrong. If you want your students to believe more in their ability to learn, it is necessary not only to give process compliments, but also to stop talking in terms of innate talent.

Not only “Do What Works” but also “Stop What Doesn't Work”

Steve de Shazer, one of the founders of the solution-focused approach, once said:

It's good to know what doesn't work, but it's really helpful to know what does work.

Now I would make it:

It's helpful to know what works so you can start doing more of it. But it's just as important to know what's not working so you can stop doing it.

Progress often depends not only on doing more of what works, but also on stopping what doesn't work. We usually have to work on two fronts simultaneously. One front is building what is valuable; the other front is phasing out what is harmful.

This hilarious sketch, while absurd, humorously reminds us of this important principle.

Also read: The importance of unlearning and conscious refraining