How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 2: Placebos

cblargeIn the previous item in this series Improbable looked at the question of whether ‘praying to win’ at sports might be ‘unsporting’. One aspect (which wasn’t mentioned) is a possible scenario whereby those who pray to win might gain an advantage by a kind-of ‘Divine Placebo’ effect – that’s to say they might try just that little-bit-harder believing that their God is on their side (irrespective of whether their God exists, and, if so, responds to their request). In contrast to ‘pray to win’, there is a considerable body of published academic research into placebo effects in sport. An overview was provided by Dr Christopher Beedie [pictured] and colleague Abigail Foad at Canterbury Christ Church University Canterbury, UK : ‘The Placebo Effect in Sports Performance A Brief Review’ in: Sports Medicine, 39(4):313-29.

The team describe previous studies which found (for example) that sub-elite runners who thought they were drinking ‘super oxygenated water’ ran 8.0% faster. Sub-elite weight lifters who believed they were getting doses of anabolic steroids managed 9.5% more weight than a control group. And untrained students performing leg-presses and who were under the impression that they were taking a special blend of ‘amino acids’ performed a stonking 9.6% more effectively.

Since the paper was published (2009), two subsequent studies have added to the literature :

(Study 1) Relates that 47% of athletes have experienced placebo effects in the past, and 67% wouldn’t mind a placebo-linked deception if it was effective, and :

(Study 2) Which described how 44% of professional coaches admitted to administering a placebo to their athletes.

Coming soon: How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 3