Tag Archives: Placebo

More Scientific Evidence That Beliefs Affect Biology

If you’ve been following me since I started writing on the internet a couple of years ago, you know that I have a certain soft spot for the power of belief (sampling: here, here, here, and here). I understand that many folks are still leery of that phrase, but when you couch it in the context of the “placebo effect,” it’s amazing how many people begin to accept it as a thing.

Depending upon your philosophical bent, you may believe that willpower is a depletable resource. You certainly wouldn’t be alone in that thought, as President Obama seems to subscribe to this point of view. There are also those who believe that willpower is not a limited resource. So, which one is it? A simple question without a simple answer. It’s important to remember that depending upon from which point we begin, we may be less inclined to believe the other side of the story (remember the confirmation bias?) As much as possible, it’s important to try to take in new information with an open mind. With that being said, (regardless of where you stand), try to examine the following study with an objective and critical eye.

…following a demanding task, only people who view willpower as limited and easily depleted (a limited resource theory) exhibited improved self-control after sugar consumption. In contrast, people who view willpower as plentiful (a nonlimited resource theory) showed no benefits from glucose—they exhibited high levels of self-control performance with or without sugar boosts. Additionally, creating beliefs about glucose ingestion (experiment 3) did not have the same effect as ingesting glucose for those with a limited resource theory.

When I read this, my first thought was, as the title suggests, more evidence that our beliefs can affect our biology (see: Biology of Belief). Of course, I understand if some folks have a hard time jumping on board with this, so, like I said, couching it in the language of the “placebo effect” seems to make it more palatable.

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After reading this, I’d encourage you to follow-through with application. That is, now that you have this knowledge, apply it to your own life. Test it out. See what works for you. Maybe you used to believe that willpower was a limited resource, but after reading this, think the opposite. It’s certainly worth taking a chance, right?

Your Beliefs Matter for Others, Too

In reflecting on yesterday’s post, I remembered another anecdote that you may find quite powerful. This comes from a story that a friend of mine who taught high school (not sure if she still does). And the more that I think about yesterday’s post and the post I’m about to write now, yesterday’s matches really well with the the first post I wrote about words being important and today’s matches really well with the second post I wrote about words being important to others.

The story begins with the teacher, let’s call her Laura to make this easier, asking the class to stand in a circle. After the class is standing in the circle, she asks for one volunteer to step into the center of the circle with her. Someone enters the center of the circle — let’s call him John. Now, before I go on, I should say that John was one of the taller people in the class (taller than Laura). These were high school students and some of them had surpassed Laura’s height, which is natural because Laura wasn’t very tall. Alright, so Laura pushes down on John’s arm and nothing happens — obviously. He’s much stronger than her.

Then, Laura asks John to go out into the hallway for a few minutes. After the door is closed, Laura then tells the class what she’s about to do. She also explains that she wants everyone to send/think negative thoughts to John. Thoughts like, “I hate you,” and “You suck,” and lots of other negative things that they can probably imagine because they’re in high school. They’re not to say any of these out loud, though. Once she’s certain everyone gets it, she goes out into the hall to get John.

After John’s back in the circle, she explains to everyone (and John, this time) that she’s going to have John extend his right arm out in front of him. Next, she’s going to ask him to hold it steady (i.e. resist) as she begins to push down on it. What John doesn’t know is that when his arm is extended, the rest of the class will be sending/thinking negative thoughts.

John extends his right arm. The class starts sending negative thoughts. Laura pushes down on John’s arm… it falls like limp spaghetti. The look on John’s face, Laura tells me, is remarkable. He’s astounded that Laura can simply push his arm down with ease. He asks her to do it again — and he tries harder to hold his arm up. The same thing happens.

She thanks John and asks him to go out into the hallway one more time. When he gets there, she then tells the class that she wants everyone to do the opposite this time. She’s going to have John repeat the process, but she wants the class to send/think positive thoughts of John. Things like, “I love you,” and “You’re awesome.”

When John comes back into the circle this time, he’s expecting that Laura will, again, be able to easily push down on his arm. However, when she pushes down — nothing happens. So, Laura then tries using both of her hands to push down. Nothing. John’s arm wouldn’t budge. Again, Laura tells me, John’s reaction is priceless. She thanks John and explains to the class what’s just happened, who by the way, are also pretty shocked to see John’s arm collapse for negative thoughts and hold steady for positive thoughts.

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The thoughts we think are powerful. This used to be something that was “fringe,” and relegated to certain aisles in the bookstores. When you see publications like Scientific American reviewing studies that confirm things like this, you know that it’s striking a mainstream cord.

If you’re looking for more information about topics like this, I suggest looking for academic studies on the Placebo Effect. It’s quite amazing the kinds of effects that can occur that are attributable simply to the person believing that they’re going to be better.

Belief Matters More Than You Think

I came across an article in Scientific American last week that reminded me of a story of mine that I haven’t yet told. When I was a PhD candidate at Sofia University, one of the classes that we were required to take was aikido. I really enjoyed learning this martial art having had past experiences with taekwondo and karate — specifically, Gōjū-ryū. (In fact, I did some googling and even found the dojo where I spent a great deal of my youth!)

Anyway, while at Sofia University and learning  aikido, I remember one of the classes quite vividly. In this class, we were learning about the five elements, as they related to aikido. In particular, we were learning about earth. The Sensei (teacher) asked one of the smallest women in the class to come to the front and then he asked me to come to the front, too. He asked her to stand normally and then asked me to lift her off the ground from under her arms. I did it easily. Next, he asked her to imagine that she was the earth element — planting roots deep into the ground. After a few dozen seconds, he then asked me to try lifting her again (in the same way I lifted her before) — nothing. I bent my knees a bit more and put some more force behind my lift — nothing.

I was amazed.

It was quite clear from the first half of this exercise that I could lift her off of the ground, but when she was imagining that she was the earth element, I was — so it seems — helpless. I’ve written before about the importance that our words/thoughts can have on ourselves (and on each other!), but this is a tangible example of how someone’s beliefs are actually effecting reality in a very tangible way. Is there something you’re believing about yourself that may be limiting your ability to lift yourself off of the ground?

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I realize that my story is anecdotal, so I thought I’d also include one of the many examples from the Scientific American article:

Psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan recently asked two groups of people to answer questions. People in one group were told that before each question, the answer would be briefly flashed on their screens — too quickly to consciously perceive, but slow enough for their unconscious to take it in. The other group was told that the flashes simply signaled the next question. In fact, for both groups, a random string of letters, not the answers, was flashed. But, remarkably, the people who thought the answers were flashed did better on the test. Expecting to know the answers made people more likely to get the answers right.

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Editor’s Note: As an aside, I’m in the process of moving from Washington, DC, to Ottawa, Canada (the Glebe!), so my posts may become a bit sparser over the next few weeks. I’ll still do my best, but if you don’t see anything for a couple of days, it’s probably because I’m busy with planning/arranging the move.

The “Health Halo Effect:” Organic Labels on Food

A couple of days ago I restarted that series on cognitive biases with a post about the Halo Effect. I recently came across a study that applied the Halo Effect, but specifically, to health. The study sought to see whether labeling food organic made folks think that the food was healthier. An excerpt:

115 people were recruited from a local shopping mall in Ithaca, New York to participate in this study. Participants were asked to evaluate 3 pairs of products — 2 yogurts, 2 cookies and 2 potato chip portions. One item from each food pair was labeled “organic,” while the other was labeled “regular.” The trick to this study was: all of the product pairs were organic and identical! Participants were asked to rate the taste and caloric content of each item, and how much they would be willing to pay for the items. A questionnaire also inquired about their environmental and shopping habits. Even though these foods were all the same, the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions.

It certainly seems like there’s evidence here for the “health halo effect.” Something that I wonder about, though — the placebo effect. I haven’t written about the placebo effect, but I imagine that most of you know what it means: it’s the idea that an inert substance can prove to have an effect on someone’s health. We can apply the placebo effect to situations outside of medicine.

In this instance, we might posit that the people who were eating the food labeled organic believed that it would taste better — and so it did. I don’t think that this hypothesis could be evaluated from the data from this study, but it would be an intriguing follow-up.