But according to a new report, most intervention studies like these have a critical flaw: They do not adequately account for the placebo effect.
The new analysis appears in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
The results of psychological interventions, like medical ones, must be compared to improvements in a control condition, said University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons, who co-wrote the article with Walter Boot, Cary Stothart and Cassie Stutts, of Florida State University. In a clinical trial for a new drug, some participants receive a pill with the critical ingredients, and others receive an identical-looking pill that is inert – a placebo. Because participants cannot tell which they received, people in each condition should be equally likely to expect improvements.
In contrast, for most psychology interventions, participants know what's in their "pill," Simons said.
"It's not possible to use a brain-training program for 10 hours without knowing the type of training you received," he said. "People can form expectations for what will improve based on their experiences with the training tasks, and the existence of differences in expectations between people in treatment and control groups potentially undermines any claim that improvements were due to the treatment itself. Not one of the studies cited by the brain-training companies looks at differing expectations between the groups."
Merely having an "active control group," one that does something for the same amount of time as the treatment group, does not protect against the placebo effect, Simons said. A treatment group that completes an intensive memory-training regimen might expect improved performance on other cognitive tasks assessing memory. A control group that does crossword puzzles or watches DVDs for the same amount of time likely won't expect the same amount of improvement on the same tasks, he said.
"These problems are not limited to brain-training studies," Simons said. "They hold true for almost all intervention studies."
To illustrate the pervasiveness of this problem, the researchers examined expectations for improvement in studies of the effect of playing action video games on measures of perception and attention.
"Such studies find greater improvements in performance on attention and perception tasks after training with action video games than after training with non-action games for the same amount of time," Boot said. "However, even with this sort of active control condition, these interventions still are at risk for differential placebo effects."
The researchers measured expectations in two survey studies involving 200 participants each. Participants watched either a short video of an action game ("Unreal Tournament") or one of the games commonly used as controls in these studies ("Tetris" or "The Sims"). They then read descriptions of the cognitive tests used in the studies, watched short videos of the tests, and answered questions about whether they thought their performance on the tests would improve as a result of training on the video game they had viewed.
The results showed that expectations for improvement were greater for the action-game group than for the control games on exactly the same tests that showed bigger improvements for action-game training in the intervention studies. In fact, the pattern of expected improvements exactly matched actual improvements seen in video game intervention studies, the researchers found.
"If expectations for improvement align perfectly with the actual improvements, then any claim that the treatment was effective is premature," Simons said. "Researchers must first eliminate differences in expectations across conditions."
"Even though participants in psychology interventions typically know the nature of their intervention – you can't play a video game without knowing the game you're playing – there are steps researchers can take to ensure that the advantages of the treatment group are not due to expectations," Boot said.
For example, researchers can mislead participants as to the expected benefits of a particular intervention, giving those in the control group higher expectations for improvement than those in the treatment group. Researchers also can assess expectations generated by treatments in a separate sample of participants to ensure that expectations do not differ between intervention and control treatments.
"Although placebo effects can be helpful as well, we need to know what causes improvements in an intervention," Simons said. "We don't want to recommend new therapies, change school curricula, or encourage the elderly to buy brain-training games if the benefits are just due to expectations for improvement. Only by using better active controls that equate for expectations can we draw definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of any intervention."
Simons is an affiliate of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.
Editor's notes: To reach Walter Boot, call 850-645-8734; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The paper, "The Pervasive Problem with Placebos in Psychology: Why Active Control Groups are Not Sufficient to Rule out Placebo Effects," is available from the U. of I. News Bureau.
Daniel Simons | EurekAlert!
The importance of biodiversity in forests could increase due to climate change
17.11.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für integrative Biodiversitätsforschung (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Win-win strategies for climate and food security
02.10.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.
Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....
The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.
Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...
Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.
That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...
Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.
During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....
The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.
Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...
15.11.2017 | Event News
15.11.2017 | Event News
30.10.2017 | Event News
21.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
21.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
21.11.2017 | Life Sciences