The Mastermind Effect: How Placebos Can Boost General Intelligence

The placebo effect is when an individual experiences benefits from a “sham drug” or “sham treatment” that is otherwise not supposed to have any medical benefits.

The basic idea is that the mere suggestion that an individual is receiving an effective drug or treatment sometimes activates certain self-healing and self-boosting processes.

While most research on the placebo effect is about physical ailments, it’s only recently that psychologists have looked into the placebo effect as a possible cognitive enhancer to boost intelligence.

In one 2011 study published in Memory, it was found that individuals who took a placebo pill (which they were told would boost their cognitive ability) actually performed better in a high-effort prospective memory task when compared to the individuals who didn’t take the placebo.

This is one of the first examples of the placebo effect being effectively used as a cognitive enhancer.

Then in another 2013 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, it was found that a similar effect could be activated without the use of a sham drug, but instead a “bogus priming effect.”

In that experiment, individuals were primed to believe that the correct answer to a question would subliminally flash on the screen, but it would be outside of their awareness. They were told this would “unconsciously enhance their knowledge and that they should hence trust their skills in an upcoming knowledge test.”

In reality, the subliminal flashes were just random letters that didn’t reflect the correct answer at all – but that didn’t stop individuals who believed they were unconsciously getting the right answer to perform better on the task.

The theory behind this is that by believing we have an advantage to get the right answer, we free up cognitive resources that are often inhibited due to stress and performance anxiety.

The placebo effect helps alleviate these symptoms when doing a task, which consequently allows us to perform better.

So can we “trick” our minds into being smarter and making better decisions? To some extent, it seems like the answer is yes.

Of course, I don’t think this effect can replace actually consuming new information and practicing to become an expert in something, but having a general sense of confidence in our mind’s ability is at least a prerequisite to true intelligence.

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