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No Evidence for Expectation Effects in Cognitive Training Tasks


A great deal of recent empirical and theoretical work has examined whether it is possible to enhance cognitive functioning via behavioral (cognitive) training. While a growing body of research provides support for such a hypothesis, multiple critiques of the field have suggested that any positive findings in the field to date may be due to placebo effects, rather than reflecting “true” benefits of the training paradigms. Here, in a series of four experiments, we sought to purposefully induce placebo effects of this type in cognitive training-style setup. We did so in multiple outcome domains (fluid intelligence; spatial skills), employed multiple types of “training” paradigms (classic cognitive training using the N-back working memory task; the video game Tetris) and critically, combined explicit verbal instructions that participants in some groups “should expect to improve their performance after completing their training with associative learning “evidence” that such improvements were occurring (via manipulated task designs). In no case, though, was a placebo effect observed. These results collectively provide evidence against the contention that placebo effects are a major driver of positive outcomes previously attributed to cognitive training interventions.

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Data Availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. These datasets along with all final analysis code will be uploaded to an open-data repository upon publication.


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The project was partially supported by Office of Naval Research grant N00014-17-1-2049 to C.S.G.

Author information




M.V., A.Corriveau, A.Cochrane, and C.S.G. contributed to the development of the methods, procedures, and core hypotheses. M.V., A.Corriveau, and Z.D. took primary responsibility for data collection. A.Cochrane took primary responsibility for data analysis, with contributions from the remainder of the author list. All authors contributed to the writing of the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. Shawn Green.

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All studies described here were approved by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Education and Social/Behavioral IRB.

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All participants provided informed consent to participate in the studies described here.

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Vodyanyk, M., Cochrane, A., Corriveau, A. et al. No Evidence for Expectation Effects in Cognitive Training Tasks. J Cogn Enhanc 5, 296–310 (2021).

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  • Cognitive training
  • Expectation effects
  • Placebo effects
  • Behavioral interventions