, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 399-405
Date: 18 Nov 2010

Can expectancies produce placebo effects for implicit learning?

Abstract

The placebo effect is an important phenomenon whereby real changes occur in response to an otherwise inert intervention. Despite increasing research attention, it remains unclear exactly which processes are amenable to placebo effects. The current study tested whether an instructional manipulation could produce placebo effects on a nonconscious cognitive task, namely implicit learning. Four hundred and sixty-four university students completed a visual search task while smelling an odor or no odor, in alternating blocks. Unknown to them, the task contained a contingency whereby on half the trials the target’s location was cued by the pattern of distractors, which was achieved by repeating some configurations of targets and distractors. Prior to the task, participants received positive, negative, or no information about the odor’s possible effects on performance. Those given positive information demonstrated faster reaction times on cued trials than other participants. Those given negative information showed slower reaction times on cued trials compared with participants given no information. Further, the cuing effect appeared to be nonconscious, with participants’ ability to recognize the repeated configurations equivalent to chance and no evidence that performance on a recognition test was related to the magnitude of the cuing effect. This suggests that instructional manipulations can produce placebo effects on some nonconscious processes.