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Health & Science

Does The Placebo Effect Influence Consumer Product Purchases?


So let's say you're golfing. You're on the putting green. You really want to get that ball into the hole, and you're feeling a lot of pressure. You can either use a fancy brand name putter, or you can use a generic putter. Now, if the two putters actually have the same quality, does having the brand-name putter actually help your swing? It's a good question. And we're going to pose it to NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.


GREENE: Do you golf?

VEDANTAM: I do not golf, David.

GREENE: OK, good to know. Well, you know enough about social science research to dig into the minds of golfers. So what's the answer here? Is using this brand-name putter, even if it's the exact same, make a difference?

VEDANTAM: It does. There's been a lot of work in recent years examining what's called the placebo effect, David. You've probably heard about it in medical contexts. You take a pill. You think it works...

GREENE: A sugar pill.

VEDANTAM: ... And you feel better, even if it's just a sugar pill. There's been lots of new research that applies the same idea to all manner of consumer products, including, as it turns out, golf putters. Frank Germann at the University of Notre Dame, along with Aaron Garvey and Lisa Bolton, gave volunteers a putter and asked them to try to sink a golf ball into a hole. The researchers counted the number of strokes they needed to succeed. Volunteers thought they were using different putters. Here's Germann.

FRANK GERMANN: About half of the participants were told that they would be putting with a Nike putter, whereas the other half of participants were not told what putter brand they would be using. Importantly, all participants used the exact same putter. And, you know, interestingly, our results showed that those who thought that it was a Nike putter on average needed significantly fewer putts to sink the golf ball.

GREENE: They just felt empowered with that Nike putter in hand, right?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) That's exactly right, David. Now, the interesting thing is that Germann and others find this is not just the case with physical activities. But it's also the case with mental activities. Volunteers in another experiment were asked to take a math test and given foam earplugs to block out sounds and distractions. The earplugs were all identical, but some were told they were 3M-brand earplugs.

Volunteers who thought they got the brand-name earplugs expected to be less distracted. And they also ended up doing better on the math test. One interesting fact here, David, volunteers who used the brand-name products do not end up crediting the product when they do better at golf or math. They just take all the credit for themselves and say...

GREENE: (Laughter) They think it was just them. They were great.

VEDANTAM: ... I'm just...

GREENE: They did a great job.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, exactly, we're naturals. Germann told me that even if volunteers don't understand what is really happening, he understands why people do better with brand-name products rather than generic products.

GERMANN: The use of a strong-performance brand causes participants to feel better about themselves when undertaking a task, you know, have greater task-specific self-esteem. And this higher self-esteem lowers their performance anxiety, which in turn leads to the better performance outcomes.

GREENE: I find myself looking at this microphone and trying to determine whether it's a really fancy brand...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GREENE: ... Or if it's generic or not. If this were generic and I went out and brought something very brand-name, would I just have more confidence and think that I was just doing better on the radio?

VEDANTAM: So here's the interesting thing, David. I don't think this phenomenon actually affects everyone equally. Germann finds that brand-name products do not help experts as much as they help novices.

GERMANN: The effect is strongest among people who are novices in their respective task. Experts, they really receive little or no boost due to the performance brand. I'm not much of a golfer, so maybe that's why (laughter) I've experienced the placebo effect when I golfed.

VEDANTAM: So I guess the answer to your question about the microphone, David, depends on whether you think of yourself as being a novice or an expert when it comes to broadcasting.

GREENE: I think of myself as a novice. And I think that you should go get some brand-name golf clubs and try on the putting greens since you've never golfed before.


GREENE: Shankar, thanks a lot.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam. He is NPR's social science correspondent. And he is the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.