Weird Mind-Body-Placebo Stuff

NPR : Hotel Maids Challenge the Placebo Effect

The experiment is by Ellen Langer, who’s my favorite psychologist.  Her experiment suggests that the huge amount of exercise that hotel maids get doesn’t benefit their health at all unless they think of it as exercise.  Then it makes them healthier.

There’s some silly editorializing about laying about eating “bon-bons” (when is the last time anyone used the word “bon-bon” except as a symbol of indolence and self-indulgence?) while somehow making yourself believe you’re exercising, and there’s the de rigeur “that can’t possibly be true, it must be skewed because of these factors which the experimenter controlled for but I’m going to talk as if she didn’t control for them” response from the de rigeur Fellow The Reporter Contacted And Asked To Give The Other Side of the Story.

It’s a pretty interesting experiment anyway.  One of the themes in Langer’s books about mindlessness and mindfulness is that a lot more of what we think of as “reality” is a matter of mindless assumptions than we tend to assume.  She’s done work on lots of human limitations that turn out to be more a matter of unquestioned belief than absolute limits — including effects of age, alcoholism, physical disability, the limits of creative imagination and “talent,” and even trivialities like extreme muscle fatigue in one’s writing hand.

This is surprising and striking, especially because of America’s extremely neurotic obsession with health, weight, and exercise, and how they interrelate, but it’s consistent with a lot of her other work.