Our minds, and subsequently our bodies, are easily duped into thinking we're being treated for something and then kicking into gear the mechanisms required to take care of ourselves. While placebos are usually associated with medicine, experiments and clinical trials, there's an easy way to apply this type of mind hacking to your personal goals and use it to build better habits. Here's how.
What Is the Placebo Effect?
The placebo effect is a powerful thing and there's research to indicate that it's getting stronger. If you're not familiar with the concept, the placebo effect is a measurable, quantifiable or experienced benefit in health, performance or well-being due to the administration of a treatment that in most cases has nothing to do with the issue it's supposed to treat. It gained traction largely thanks to a 1955 study by Harry K Beecher in the Journal of the American Medical Association called "The Powerful Placebo" (Pubmed), which showed that across a dozen clinical trials involving over a thousand people, 35 per cent of patients being treated for an illness with a placebo (usually a sugar pill) instead of an actual medication designed to treat their illness actually felt better and showed measurable signs of improvement. Beecher's study spawned thousands of subsequent studies over the years and the original study has been revisited and reviewed several times since then. The placebo effect has been demonstrated enough times that many clinical trials for new drugs and treatments have to factor for it in their error analysis.
Regardless of its medicinal use, the placebo effect can be a powerful tool to change behaviour and motivate people to self-improvement, either by serving as a physical motivator (eg, an energy drink makes you believe you have more energy to train harder) or a mental boost (your friends tell you you're looking thinner, you believe them and you actually shed pounds faster).
Image: Lucy Renell.
Why Do Placebos Work?
The real cause behind the placebo effect isn't entirely clear. Some say that it's proof that for certain people, illnesses are all in the mind and can be overcome without real treatment. Others note that the process of being treated — doctor's visits, poking and prodding and some kind of treatment, whether it's a false medication or just orders to go home and drink a lot of tea — are enough to convince someone they're getting what they need to get better and their body responds accordingly. The trouble with either theory is that it's difficult to identify who can be treated with a placebo and who needs real medicine — at least until one has been tried.
This excellent article from the Wall Street Journal explains that while researchers aren't entirely sure why the placebo effect works, or why it's getting stronger, there are some indications that while placebos aren't about to treat a gaping wound or a cancerous lung, they can be put to good use to relieve ailments that block us from doing more, motivate ourselves to change our behaviours and overall working harder towards our goals. For example, the WSJ article above mentions a study we've referenced before involving hotel workers. Hotel workers who did the same jobs and weren't asked to change their diet or habits at all were broken into two groups: one group was told that their work translated to a strenuous workout that should result in weight loss and the other was told nothing. Predictably, the group who were told their daily activities were a good workout lost weight.
Okay, But How Do I Apply the Placebo Effect To My Everyday Life?
We talk a lot about mind hacks at Lifehacker. Using the placebo effect as a motivating force to keep you on the path to achieving your goals is as good as any method. Ultimately, the first step is to convince yourself that what you're doing, even if it's not as far as you think you could go towards your goal, is pushing you in the right direction and is making an impact.
We don't mean that in a foo-foo "The Secret" kind of way, either. If you're planning to ditch the junk food and start a new, healthier diet in the new year, focus on the foods you get to eat as opposed to the things you're trying to cut out of your diet. Find some delicious foods that you adore that work for you and hone in on them, reminding yourself that every time you treat yourself to some delicious greek yoghurt, for example, or a freshly sliced apple if that's your thing, you're not just on the right track, but you're losing weight. Will the apple itself make you lose weight? Of course not — but the exercise of acting like it is has a ripple effect in your other activities and can impact your diet in other ways, most notably in making it easier to stick with the healthy eats without missing the junk food.
Image: Ed Yourdon.
We've seen this kind of brain-trickery before. For example, one study showed that eating with large utensils will make you feel full faster, as will eating from smaller plates, something most people already know. Even just slowing down while you eat can help, although the reasons behind that are anything but a placebo. Still, these techniques trick your mind into changing not just a single behaviour, but many behaviours that can help you progress towards your goals.
Diet and exercise aren't the only things you can apply this to. If you're planning to write a novel this year, or start a blog populated with thought-provoking, interesting articles, start by making lists and outlining ideas. It's an essential step for writers anyway, but nothing makes you feel like you're closer to finishing that great novel like having it outlined with ideas on paper and nothing left but the blanks to fill in. Want to get up earlier every day? Set the alarm clock back by five minutes. Sure, you know you did it, and you'll know you have five extra minutes every time you look at the clock, but if you can remind yourself that you set the clock back in order to get up earlier, you can motivate yourself to do it (hopefully) without rolling back over.
In the end, your goal is to do something that makes you feel like you're on the way to achieving your goal. Even if it's only tangentially related, as long as you feel like you're on the way, you'll at least be more motivated to go the distance.
Won't I Know I'm Tricking Myself?
In some cases, yes. Even so, the WSJ article points out that even if patients were told they were getting a placebo with no active ingredient, many of them reported that they felt better anyway. In some cases, doing something simple that's not terribly helpful can wind up making a world of difference, or something you wouldn't expect has as big an impact as it does can make a big difference.
For example, we've discussed how a half-hour walk can be significant, even if it's the only physical activity you get and how small changes can help you get to bigger results, not by virtue of the specific change, but by encouraging you to make other changes and improvements as well. This process of slow, steady self improvement is called Kaizen and one way to kick off the process is with small, otherwise inocuous changes. Sometimes, all you really need is a push in the right direction. Even if that push is impossibly tiny, it can yield big results.
Image: Yi Chen.