When I was about 10 years old, my dad gave me and my brother a baseball lesson. Specifically, we practiced hitting the ball. The lesson Dad gave was the same for my brother as it was for me, but the results couldn’t have been more divergent. From that day on my brother became a “slugger” and I, a “striker.” If you don’t think you can control your emotions, you’re probably right, and you’ll likely become a striker like me. The placebo effect from drug studies may help, though.

A Little Difference with Big Results

What can science tell us about how my brother elevated his game and I tanked mine? (This is the scientific equivalent of, WTF?) All we know now is that something different happened for my brother and me. It turns out that a simple belief is likely to credit for our diverging batting averages – a belief that is within personal control but not fully controllable by everyone. Huh? Why? How?

A significant component of dad’s instruction addressed the bat – or at least implied its role in getting hits.

You’ve got to Believe

“You may be wondering: how are you going to hit a round ball with a round bat?” Dad posed.

“Yeah, Dad, I was wondering that very thing, HOW CAN I hit a round ball with a round bat?”

This turned out to be a key question and, I believe, THE pivotal condition that put my brother on a path to playoff-bound teams whereas I was never able to get my baseball career to first base.

“You don’t. You hit the ball on the flat side of the bat." Dad encouraged us as he guided our fingers over the barrel of the bat.

“Here, feel here. Here you can feel the flat side of the bat. If you swing this flat side at the ball, you will get more hits.”

The Placebo Effect

My dad was counting on a powerful psychological condition well known in the field of pharmacology – The Placebo effect.

It didn’t entirely work out as Dad planned – at least, not for me.

My brother claimed to feel the flat side of our shared Louisville Slugger. Armed with the conviction that bat and ball actually are designed for hits not strikes my brother saw an immediate improvement in his hitting. I, on the other hand, did NOT feel the flat side of the bat, and, did NOT experience better batting. In fact, now convinced that the flat side of the bat (that doesn’t exist) was THE (missing) KEY to getting hits, I was barely able to make ball contact at all. The easiest explanation for the sudden divergence of my brother’s and my batting was that belief that holding the bat a certain way that favored its “flat side” would lead to more hits, or not.

When a Placebo Becomes a Primary Variable -- i.e., a Big Deal

Here we have the experimental design of the placebo effect. By encouraging my brother and me to “feel” the flat side of the bat (which doesn’t really exist) my dad hoped to establish the critical belief that hits were possible if only one swung with the right side of the bat facing the ball. Confidence in this belief (I know – an oxymoron, "confident belief") was figured to cause an increase in hits as a result. Given this was the only identifiable difference between my brother and myself, belief in one’s potential determined hits. My brother prospered in his newfound belief about the difficulty of the task. But what happened to my placebo effect?

The placebo effect is well known in pharmacological research, or drug studies. This is the standard “psychology only” condition for virtually every drug entering the market. To test the possibility that merely believing in the efficacy of a given treatment has a significant effect on its results beyond any biological agent, the new drug is tested against a placebo condition where no drug is administered to a control group. This simple design has arguably yielded more advances in pharmacological and psychological research than just about any other phenomenon. It turns out that the placebo effect is not only present in just about every drug trial, it's strong, rivaling the physiological effect of many new drugs.

Prove It

How important is the placebo effect to psychological research?

Critical. And in more ways than one.

In fact, THE primary question in psychological research is whether or not a treatment condition is significantly more effective than no treatment at all. This is the tested assumption of the null hypothesis which is the bedrock of experimental design. As an inferential, data-driven science, the job of the researcher is to disprove the possibility that nothing happened. Placebos are a staple of pharmacological research aimed at rejecting the null hypothesis that nothing happened in favor of the presented alternative. This alternative account of results isn’t proven true, the hypothesis of no effect is simply proven to be relatively improbable as compared to the hypothesized effect. In this regard, properly scientific psychological research seeks to prove that “nothing” is an inferior explanation to the alternative hypothesis.

Beyond the Placebo Effect

In psychological research, the placebo effect goes beyond the simple issue of whether a given effect is due merely to the non-treatment condition or the presence of some stimulus (e. g., taking a pill). Here the matter applies as much to independent psychological mechanisms (i.e., variables and their nature of influence) as much it does to the simple question of whether or not any effect is present. A placebo effect holds out the possibility that a given variable may have a more insightful role in behavior than serve simply as a placebo.

The possibility THAT something (oftentimes a psychological variable) can influence study results begs the question: “HOW?”

When a placebo advances in research from the fact that it has SOME kind of effect on results to the specific mechanism(s) of the “placebo” the placebo becomes a key variable for study beyond the original focal variable(s). Science turns to addressing HOW the former placebo works instead of asserting THAT it exists. This is when the placebo becomes an independent variable with a specific mechanism of action. This is when powerful psychological insights are made -- insights that aren’t immediately written off to a placebo effect, but rather depend on the main effect of a placebo effect-like psychological condition.

For our hitting practice, belief in a flat side of a bat minimized the negative attitudinal, or motivational effects underlying a known difficult task -- hitting a round ball with a round bat. The change of attitude associated with our evolving placebo effect emulates a well-researched condition known as cognitive reappraisal.

Typically, this emotional motivation is deliberately and noticeably manipulated via an explicit experimental condition in which participants are guided through the act of cognitive reappraisal. Such an act is not necessary in this case because motivation is already provided by the goal of getting hits. The only thing necessary is to manipulate the participant’s belief in their ability to hit the ball.

That’s not funny

The punchline to an old psychology joke goes, … “one, but the lightbulb has got to WANT to change.” The common understanding is that beliefs are precursors to acts and that any change in action requires/carries a change in causal/supporting beliefs. In most cases cognitive reappraisal is triggered directly by asking a study participant to consider the emotions (or beliefs, in our example) associated with the task in a new light. By reframing an emotional state this way an individual can manage the emotional impact of a situation so as to have less of a negative impact on immediate performance. In this case the motivation to perform is assumed rather than directly manipulated. Here, motivation depends upon beliefs about the difficulty of the task. As these beliefs are enhanced, the motivating attitudes are similarly predicted to change.

Reaping value

So – how can one get value out of this insight?

Wanting to change isn’t the same thing as believing one can, but it is a measurable and influential effect strongly predictive of being able to change. In this case, wanting to get hits is a motivational condition preceding the act of hitting the ball AND resulting from the consequence of getting hits. Therefore, managing one’s motivation for a task has the potential to enhance task performance. But how do you do this?

We’ve seen one good example for how to manage your emotions already – cognitive reappraisal. This is the equivalent of hitting the “reset button” to current thinking and concomitant feelings. By changing the emotive nature of a task we change its desirability and increase(decrease) its motivation. Another means of emotions management is via mindfulness meditation. I write about my personal experience on a week-long silent mindfulness meditation here.

In conclusion

  1. Attitudes matter. They influence motivation which has a corresponding influence on task performance by framing expectations/beliefs.
  2. Motivations matter. They are a form of attitude (which already matters) that can be deliberately controlled by adapting and associating various emotional effects/influences from one situation to another. In our batting example this was accomplished by changing beliefs about the probability of a successful/desired performance.

“It” may all be in your head – but there’s no guarantee that you will have control over “it.” However, if you cannot control it, then it will control you.

Psychology at work – it’s more important than you think!

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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