alcohol versus caffeine: placebo effect

One of the big messages in the Smithie-made “SmART Senior!” video is that the behavioral effects of alcohol are due more to cultural expectations than to the effects of the drug itself. It’s called a “placebo effect,” for those unfamiliar with this kind of research. Most of the behavior changed exhibited by people consuming alcohol can be explained by their BELIEF that they’re consuming alcohol, rather than by the effects of the drug itself. (Watch the video for details.)

But I think it’s important to point out that not all substances are equally placebo-based in their effects.

Take this study on placebo effect and caffeine. It’s not quite the identical set up. We’ve got two groups: one is getting caffeine and is told they’re getting caffeine; the other group is NOT getting caffeine but is told they ARE getting caffeine.

And then both groups are given a series of tasks to do. Here’s the part where it gets interesting: half of the people in each group are told that the the caffeine (or “caffeine”) they consumed will make them better at the task, and half are told that it will make them worse at the task.

So how did they do?

The folks who got caffeine and were told it would enhance their performance DID SIGNIFICANTLY BETTER than those who got caffeine but were told it would worsen their performance. AND the folks who didn’t get caffeine and were told that it would enhance their performance did better than the folks who also didn’t get caffeine but were told it would impair their performance!

caffeine

So finding #1: being told a drug will help you do better makes you do better, regardless of whether or not you actually take a drug.

But wait, there’s more! The folks who got caffeine but were told it would diminish their performance actually did better than the folks who didn’t get caffeine and were told it would diminish their performance. Now this might tell us two things, right? It tells us that the caffeine really does enhance performance, even in the face of being told it won’t; AND/OR it tells us that test subjects who are regular coffee drinkers but don’t get any caffeine in the morning will do pretty poorly.

Addiction is real, man.

So caffeine has a real impact, and when used MODERATELY (2oz of coffee per hour is a reasonable rate, 1oz per hour of an “energy drink”) it can help a sleep deprived student get through a demanding task.

But even without coffee, simply BELIEVING that you can do well will have an EVEN GREATER impact on your success!

It’s important to note that caffeine overdose is also a REAL THING and it SUCKS. Shaky hands, racing heart, it’s no fun and it can be potentially dangerous, taken to an extreme. MODERATION, friends.

PS: Never, EVER combine alcohol and caffeine. Seriously. Let me explain with a fun musical video:

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