Experience, A Placebo?

It seems that medicine need not be medicinal for benefits to accrue – welcome to the placebo effect.  Placebos are traditionally denoted as inert substances that have the appearance but not the mechanism for a therapeutic role.  Give one group a white pill containing an active agent and a second group apparently the same white pill without the active agent; it could just be a sugar pill.  It stands to reason that the difference between the groups will be due to the active agent.  It’s reasonable but often incorrect.

The more we investigate the role of placebos, the more interesting their role seems to become.  There is evidence that placebos are becoming more effective and, more recently, some initial evidence that positive effects are produced even when people know they are receiving a placebo (usually, deception has been thought of as a pre-condition for the placebo effect).

In psychology, the Hawthorne Effect (and a range of other ‘effects) could represent types of placebo effects whereby the process of being studied is an active agent in its own right.  Sometimes, perhaps all the time, just being there (or even being nearby) can effect change.  In experiential learning, can experience itself operate sometimes as a placebo?

‘tis nobler suggests that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’.  Fundamentally, the issue is not whether experience offers learning value, for it always does; the issue concerns the efficiency with which this learning value is extracted from the experience.  Participating in any experience, directly, indirectly or vicariously, offers learning opportunities even when you think these experiences are nothing more than ‘sugar pills’.  Despite just going through the motions, learning is still taking place, albeit more slowly, more half-heartedly and much more inefficiently:

‘tis nobler was reminded of ‘experience as placebo’ when reading about some recent happiness research.  The conclusion was very telling – ‘We conclude that happiness interventions are more than just placebos, but that they are most successful when participants know about, endorse, and commit to the intervention’ (emphasis added).

Experience can be a placebo but it can and should be more than just a placebo.  If you know about, endorse and commit to experiential learning, learning outcomes will be more effective and much more efficient.  ‘Spectators’ learn but participants learn more quickly and more deeply.

Going through the motions is a form of self-deception. How do you deceive yourself when exposed to each and every experience that adds learning value?  Find your own way to enable your experiences to be more than placebos.

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