Study gives important warning: there could well be a placebo-effect active in cognitive-training studies

I found this study by Foroughi et al. via Wouter Duyck and I think it’s pretty important enough to share it here. Why is it important?

Placebo effects pose problems for some intervention studies, particularly those with no clearly identified mechanism. Cognitive training falls into that category, and yet the role of placebos in cognitive interventions has not yet been critically evaluated. Here, we show clear evidence of placebo effects after a brief cognitive training routine that led to significant fluid intelligence gains. Our goal is to emphasize the importance of ruling out alternative explanations before attributing the effect to interventions. Based on our findings, we recommend that researchers account for placebo effects before claiming treatment effects.

So what Foroughi et al. show is that while these recent studies on cognitive training sometimes show interesting results, there might be placebo effects blurring the conclusions. It’s a plea for the use of random controlled trials (RTC’s), also in this area of research.

Abstract of the study:

Although a large body of research shows that general cognitive ability is heritable and stable in young adults, there is recent evidence that fluid intelligence can be heightened with cognitive training. Many researchers, however, have questioned the methodology of the cognitive-training studies reporting improvements in fluid intelligence: specifically, the role of placebo effects. We designed a procedure to intentionally induce a placebo effect via overt recruitment in an effort to evaluate the role of placebo effects in fluid intelligence gains from cognitive training. Individuals who self-selected into the placebo group by responding to a suggestive flyer showed improvements after a single, 1-h session of cognitive training that equates to a 5- to 10-point increase on a standard IQ test. Controls responding to a nonsuggestive flyer showed no improvement. These findings provide an alternative explanation for effects observed in the cognitive-training literature and the brain-training industry, revealing the need to account for confounds in future research.

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