The Power of the Placebo

17 February 2014

Dr Chris Beedie
Dr Chris Beedie

Dr Chris Beedie, a Reader in Sport & Exercise Psychology at the Institute of Human Sciences at Aberystwyth University illustrates how placebos can improve sporting performance on the BBC’s long standing science programme Horizon.

The programme, The Power of the Placebo is broadcast on BBC TWO at 9p.m. on Monday 17 February.

Dr Beedie’s research examines the role of emotions and beliefs in human behaviour.

“Athletes look for any product, technology, or process that might provide them a competitive advantage,” said Dr Beedie.

“This leads some athletes to use illegal and potentially harmful drugs. The use of such drugs undermines the ethos of sport. More seriously, it threatens the health of athletes. There are currently 73 documented deaths resulting from the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport.

“A small number of athletes who have failed drugs tests have claimed that they did not know they had taken the drug. It is now clear that in several cases drugs have been deceptively administered by coaches, scientists or team doctors.

“Ten years ago, one such athlete claimed that his ignorance of having taken the drug rendered the drug less effective, in short that a drug is only fully effective if the athlete is aware that they have taken it.

“Whilst this proposal is at face value counter-intuitive,” added Dr Beedie, “it is not inconsistent with recent findings relating to the placebo effect in medicine.”

For ten years, Dr Beedie and a team of sports scientists at several UK Universities have researched the above idea.

Firstly they examined what would happen when athletes performed at maximal intensity when they believed that they had taken a performance enhancing drug but had in fact taken a placebo.

The team informed them that they had taken high doses of caffeine, a substance that, although legal in sport, can still enhance performance substantially.

They found that athletes went faster, and that the more caffeine they thought they’d taken, the faster they appeared to go.

In reality the athletes hadn’t taken any caffeine, they simply believed that they had. They had experienced a placebo effect, albeit one on performance.

Secondly, the team examined what would happen if different athletes were told different stories about the same ‘drug’ (again, a placebo); some that it would make them go faster, others that it would make them go slower.

Not surprisingly, given the above, effects were more in line with the story than the content of the tablets, those who went slower experiencing what the medical community term a ‘nocebo’ or negative placebo effect.

Lastly the team examined whether, if they gave athletes a real ‘drug’ (caffeine), but told them it was a placebo, it would be as effective as when they were given the drug and were told the truth.

It wasn’t; whilst the caffeine had an effect in both conditions, it appeared to work almost twice as well when the athletes knew they’d taken it.

This finding arguably supported the claims of the athletes described above.  This is also a form of placebo effect.

“Our research findings suggest that performance levels similar to those resulting from drugs can be achieved through a placebo,” said Dr Beedie.

He added; “It also suggests that drugs are more likely to be effective when an athlete has a positive expectation of them than if they have a negative expectation, and that drugs might be more effective when the athlete knows they’ve taken them than when they don’t.

“In short, the mind is at play as much as the body when an athlete uses drugs.”

Commenting on the use of this research, Dr Beedie said; “Theoretically, if we can demonstrate to athletes and coaches that the power to improve their performance is as much in the mind as the bottle or syringe, we could help reduce drug use in sport. This in turn may improve the confidence of the public - especially the parents of aspiring athletes - in sport.

“More importantly, it could reduce the often negative health effects of drug use,” he added. “The current phase of our research tests this idea by evaluating attitudes to drug use before and after an athlete has experienced the type of ‘sports placebo effect’ described above.”

Dr Chris Beedie can be contacted at chb44@aber.ac.uk.



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