February 8, 2006

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Rain Dances & Placebos

When you get the local witch doctor in to help with the crops, you expect your money's worth. If he just came in with a piece of paper and said "sign here", and buggered off again, you wouldn't be very impressed.

He has to put on a bit of a show. He might really believe he can make it rain. Then again, he might not. Either way, he's got to make it look convincing. So he burns some special leaves and does a special dance, while he chants special words - all wearing a special hat and shaking a special stick.

Ritual is apparantly very important in convincing people that something is going to work - especially when the outcome is, in reality, completely beyond our control. The less control we have, the more important ritual seems to become. Ritual is a key factor in the placebo effect, for example. Studies done with patients receiving "real" and "fake" acupuncture showed similar results for both groups - but only if the patients recieving the placebo really believed they were getting acupuncture. Special fake needles had to be invented that made the patient think they were being inserted into the skin, and the acupuncturist had to reproduce the experience as faithfully as possible. Similar results have been recorded in studies using "real" faith healers and actors trained to copy them.

Of course, a rain dance can't influence the weather, so it's not a placebo (indeed, it might give false hope and make things worse). But many rituals effect people, and groups of people, directly. Arguably, they could have some effect.

You might want to start making a list of all the rituals being used on your project, and ask yourself how much of it actually makes any practical difference, and how much of it is just there for show.

You might also stop to ask yourself "what will happen if we stop these rituals?" Are there placebos in software development? If we stop believing something is going to work, is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Who knows?
Posted 15 years, 6 months ago on February 8, 2006