Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

The Placebo Effect

30 May 2009

I think people are always underestimating the power and effectiveness of the placebo effect. But then again, I don't really blame them. The medical practitioners and clinical testers have attached such a negative connotation to the word, that now when we hear the word "placebo" we somehow think it's psychologically a "bad" thing.

Society is such a wonderful teacher. If a large portion of the society thinks something is "wrong" or "bad", there's probably a ton of room for gameability, exploitation, and optimization. Smart people are quick to pick up on this and are always on the constant lookout for such phenomena to make their lives easier or help solve their everyday problems.

You know, I used to think that if a problem was solved by means of a placebo, it really isn't that good of a solution. But the concept of a placebo was only really introduced to setup a scientific "control" while experimenting with a new medication. If you could solve an ailment, or more generally, a problem in your life with a placebo, isn't that a much better solution?

In medicine, this is obvious. A placebo is usually just a sugar pill. If the placebo helps solve your headache, you've just avoided the harmful side-effects that medicinal chemicals and drugs have on your body. But the advantages placebos have in your personal life to cure your everyday problems aren't so obvious. Hence why I think it might be useful to think about it for a bit.

  1. About 5 years ago, I used to listen to a lot of music because I felt it helped keep me motivated. I now realize this was largely a placebo. I had been conditioned into believing that listening to good music was supposed to motivate you. But does my realization concern me? Of course not. The placebo helped me solve a very legitimate problem, the one of absent motivation. And that's all I care. These days, I listen to music because the very act of doing so automatically motivates me. Just as Pavlov's dog salivates every time he hears the bell go off.
  2. I like being underweight because I believe it helps be more light-weight in my thinking which leads to an improvement in my typing speed and my overall productivity. Sure, this belief might very likely be a placebo, but that's the least of my worries. According to my very first premise on smartness, most people don't care how you got smart or supremely productive. All they care is that you are that, placebo or not.
  3. I reached the pinnacle of my productivity during the months of Mar-Jun 2002. No other time in my life called for such immense resourcefulness. I was 15 and in Grade 10. But when I had wrapped up with the day's happenings, I'd always roll up my sleeves because it was hot and I would get sweaty. Years later, I discovered that whenever I rolled up my sleeves, I would never have trouble keeping my motivation boosted. Obviously this is a placebo. But hey, it works for me!

  4. Warm weather always makes me more productive. This is evident from the fact that I find it easier to wake up in the mornings during the summer terms than the winter terms. Now there might be a metabolic reason behind this, but I have a feeling a large part of the gains are purely placebo. I just believe that warm weather makes me more motivated, and it is this belief alone, the desire to avoid a contradiction with myself, which makes me that.

Here is the general pattern: I want A to happen, so I subconsciously do everything to make A happen. And lo and behold A happens. But I end up attributing A to B. This is the very definition of a placebo.

So what I want you think about today is this: what are the various placebos in your life? How do you exploit them to the fullest? And how do you add more placebos to your life so you can topple your competition and leave them wondering how you're so effective in everything you do and they're not.

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