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Monday, February 12, 2007

Mind over Matter

In a recent experiment performed by the psychologist Helen Langer, a bunch of hotel maids were told that what they were doing was a form of workout. Lo and behold, they lost weight! Although their weight loss was small, about 2 lbs, their metabolism evidently was spurred by the simple expectation that all that pillow fluffing was in fact huffing and puffing.

Langer calls this a placebo effect, but others have called it hypnosis, motivation, drive, inspiration, etc. Indeed, with the right information, people are capable of doing lots of things that can be attributed to all sorts of semi-mystical or obscure processes. But the point is there is no need to hypothesize weird psychological causes when information itself is good enough.

Indeed, a more accurate name for all this extraordinary motivation is 'semantic priming', which means that information, as processed by our cerebral cortex (the so called thinking organ or grey matter in the brain), can prime us to ignore or experience pleasure or pain, increase our metabolism, do embarrassing or stupid things, hallucinate, or even blow ourselves up. By refusing to accept the fact that the extraordinary can easily be caused by the ordinary, we open up our behavior to a myriad motivational causes from the simple placebo effect to intrinsic motivators, free will, hypnotic states or evil spirits. So the label changes, but the cause is the same, at least until the next psychologist relabels the wheel.

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