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An Expectancy Effect Causes Improved Visual Attention Performance After Video Game Playing

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Numerous studies in the last decade have shown the potential for video games to enhance several cognitive processes, with most evidence targeting visual attention. However, a debate has emerged in the literature pointing to flawed experimental design being responsible for such findings. For example, participants’ expectancy effects (i.e., a placebo) have been proposed as an alternate explanation for observed cognitive enhancement resulting from video game training. Nevertheless, to this day, there is no empirical evidence suggesting that video game studies are susceptible to expectancy effects. Here, we investigate whether we could induce an expectancy effect in visual attentional performance with a brief single placebo video game training session. We recruited naive participants and randomly assigned them into two groups that went through the same experimental procedure, except for the experimental instructions. The experimental procedure included a pre-test with an Attentional Blink task and a Useful field of view task, then a single 15-min video game training session, and finally a post-test with the same tasks as the pre-test. The placebo group received instructions implying that the video game would make them perform better, while the control group was told that they would play a video game to give them a break from the experiment. Our results show an overall significant increase in the Useful field of view performance uniquely for the placebo group. Together, these results confirm the hypothesis that video game training experiments are susceptible to expectancy effects.

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  1. In an initial submission of our manuscript we had a sample size of 24 participants, and due to criticism that the sample size was too small we increased our sample to size to 52 participants. Consequently, participants’ data were collected in two different moments. Nonetheless, the expectancy effects in the UFOV task were significant for the both samples, in other words, the main effect reported here was present with 24 participants and with 52 participants, therefore we believe that this effect is solid and the sample increment does not hinder the results presented here. Separated statistical analyses for each round of data collection was conducted and are available in the Open Science Framework website at:

  2. This p values were corrected for multiple comparisons (two comparisons) using the Bonferroni correction because the data was collected and analyzed in two rounds as described in the method section.

  3. The results presented here are the results of the whole sample of 52 participants. As explained before, the data was collected in two rounds. We therefore provide the full analysis (including the separated analysis for each sample) in the Open Science Framework website. The analysis of the first round of data collection can be accessed at “”, the analysis of the second round can be found at “”, and the full analysis with all participants can be found at “”. Additionally, we also provide the post-hoc analysis at “”.


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We are very grateful to all those who volunteered for this study. We would also like to thank Dr. Ricardo Garcia and Dr. Rafael Auler for their feedback and support. This study was financed in part by the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior-Brasil (CAPES)-Finance Code 001.

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Correspondence to Gabriel Arantes Tiraboschi.

Ethics declarations

The experiment was carried out in accordance with the Code of Ethics of the World Medical Association (Declaration of Helsinki) and was approved by the local Ethics Committee (CAAE#79356817.8.0000.5407). All participants were students or other staff of the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Informed consent was obtained from all participants prior to participation.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Full Transcript of the Instructions Given to Participants


“Hi, thank you for volunteering for this experiment. I am going to read this written instruction because we need to have uniformed instructions for our experiment. As I am reading it if you have any questions you may ask, and I’ll answer for you.

Now that you signed the informed consent we can begin with your participation in this experiment. Now I am going to explain what you will have to do. We are assessing the attentional performance of volunteers in our research study. We are going to test your attention in two tests divided into two parts.”

This part is specific for each group

“Do you have any questions? Everything all right? Please follow me to the room where you will participate in the experiment.”

Specific instruction for the Control group

“Between the two parts of the experiment, you are going to take a 15 minute rest to allow your attention to recover. During this time, you are going to play Sudoku so that you won’t have to sit here and do nothing – which would be undesirable.”

Specific instruction for the Placebo group

“Between the two parts of the experiment, you will play Sudoku and playing logic games such as these for a few minutes has been shown to make you think faster and be more attentive. We are going to assess your attention before and after playing Sudoku, and we expect improvements after you play Sudoku.”

Other instructions

Other instructions included instruction for the AB and UFOV tasks. Those instructions were exactly the same for all participants and were only related to those tasks, nothing more.

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Tiraboschi, G.A., Fukusima, S.S. & West, G.L. An Expectancy Effect Causes Improved Visual Attention Performance After Video Game Playing. J Cogn Enhanc 3, 436–444 (2019).

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