Priming and the Placebo Effect

Article length: 470 words

Reading time: 3-5 minutes

I'm currently reading "You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter" by Joe Disenza. This morning two interesting studies popped up, both talking about priming. I've talked about priming before and it's effect on likelihood of college students cheating.

Joe describes priming as, "when someone, someplace, or something in our environment triggers all sorts of associations that are hardwired into our brains, causing us to act in certain ways without being conscious of what we're doing."

The priming effect can occur in a variety of situations, as you'll see with our examples, it occurs when testing intelligence and expectations to an exercise routine. 

In a 2006 study [1] , researchers had 220 female college students read research reports (that were fake) that claimed men had a 5 percent advantage over women in math performance. They then divided these participants into two groups, group 1 was told this advantage was due to recently discovered genetic factors. Essentially, there's nothing they can do about it. Group 2 was told the advantage resulted from the way teachers stereotype girls and boys in elementary school. In this case, the advantage is a result of a bias, not pure ability. Both groups then took a math test. The women who'd read that men had a genetic advantage scored lower than those told the advantage was due to stereotype bias. 

When they were primed to think that their disadvantage was inevitable, the women performed as if they truly had a disadvantage. 

A similar effect was seen in a 1993 study [2] that looked at priming and the outcomes of exercise. 48 subjects participated of 3-90 minute aerobic workout sessions per week. Group 1 was told that the exercise routine was designed to improve both their aerobic capacity and psychological well-being. Group 2 served as the control group and were only told of the physical benefits of the exercise. At the end of the 10 weeks, both groups improved their aerobic capacity, but only group 1, showed a significant boost in self-esteem. 

Their awareness and expectation of the program caused more favorable results. 

Could the priming placebo effect occur when someone begins a new workout routine touted by a famous fitness professional? If that same program was written by someone else would they be as excited and work as hard? Likely not. 

You can use the priming placebo effect in your favor by having high expectations. Buy into your coaches, training, nutrition and mobility programs. Think they're the best out there, even if it's a bit naive. Remember, the placebo effect doesn't say the effects aren't real, it only says the effect isn't due to the cause you think. Whether you get stronger because 4x6 is actually better better than 3x10 or whether you BELIEVE it's better doesn't change the outcome, you still got stronger. 

Resources: 

1 - http://www.medicine.mcgill.ca/epidemiology/hanley/tmp/Applications/WomenMath.pdf

2 - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8475229