Voodoo Performance

From The Archives - I’m going back through the old blog and reposting some of the best articles.

In 1942 Harvard Anthropologist Walter B.Cannon published an article in American Anthropologist entitled Voodoo Death. Dr. Cannon writes, "When subjected to spells or sorcery or the use of "black magic," men may be brought to death." He cites numerous reports from aboriginal cultures around the globe where the unquestioned authority figure, whether chief or medicine man, apparently could cause someone to die simply by casting a spell or pointing a bone at them. The victims, so completely believing in the power of the authority figure and the truth that they were doomed to die, would crawl away to their huts, terrified and hopeless, refusing food, water and creature comforts. Then, in a matter of days or hours sometimes, they obligingly would pass away.

Such is the power of suggestion and the power of belief when the conditions are right.

A more recent article Lying to Win - Placebos and Sports Science is about the "Voodoo" of placebos and "belief effects". The effects of many supplements, training protocols and recovery interventions (ice baths, caffeine, carbohydrate and altitude training as examples) owe as much or more to the placebo effect as they do to biological phenomena. "Placebos invite the athlete or patient to believe that the treatment is effective and to expect a clinical outcome."

Take ice baths for example. Ice baths, interestingly, show absolutely no benefit whatsoever to the biomarkers that should improve if they did work. Nonetheless, many athletes and trainers still believe in their effectiveness. In one experiment test subjects who took an ice bath routinely had quicker strength improvements than those subjects who took a lukewarm bath. But then a third group of subjects who took a lukewarm bath with added "recovery oil" (actually just liquid beauty soap) showed strength improvements equal to the ice bath subjects. So what's going on here? Many sports scientists agree that simply believing that a treatment work can produce performance improvements even if there is no real treatment effect.

"Experienced coaches and sports scientists intuitively know how important belief effects can be...if the athletes are the least bit hesitant or noncommittal...most experienced practitioners will retreat, knowing the timing is not right. In the past placebo effects were thought of as a fake effect, but today the powerful performance related outcomes associated with improved belief in a training program or novel intervention are seen as real effects that need to be harnessed."

So don't worry, we aren't going to start pointing bones at you in the gym to scare you into performing better. (Although I have been smoking a lot of short ribs lately...) We just want you to buy into the program. When we encourage you to push a little harder and tell you that you can do it, we might be "lying to win," but believe us anyway. If you keep getting better, does it really matter?

Randy Hauer