Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham discusses in the following post a study that he says stunned him. Read why. Willingham is a professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His latest book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham

One of the great intellectual pleasures is to hear an idea that not only seems right, but that strikes you as so terribly obvious (now that you’ve heard it) you’re in disbelief that no one has ever made the point before.

I tasted that pleasure this week, courtesy of a paper by Walter Boot and colleagues (2013).

The paper concerned the adequacy of control groups in intervention studies–interventions like (but not limited to) “brain games” meant to improve cognition, and the playing of video games, thought to improve certain aspects of perception and attention.

To appreciate the point made in this paper, consider what a control group is supposed to be and do. It is supposed to be a group of subjects as similar to the experimental group as possible, except for the critical variable under study.

The performance of the control group is to be compared to the performance of the experimental group, which should allow an assessment of the impact of the critical variable on the outcome measure.

Now consider video gaming or brain training. Subjects in an experiment might very well guess the suspected relationship between the critical variable and the outcome. They have an expectation as to what is likely to happen. If they do, then there might be a placebo effect–people perform better on the outcome test simply because they expect that the training will help, just as some people feel less pain when given a placebo that they believe is an analgesic.

The standard way to deal with that problem is the use an “active control.” That means that the control group doesn’t do nothing–they do something–but it’s something that the experimenter does not believe will affect the outcome variable. So in some experiments testing the impact of action video games on attention and perception, the active control plays slow-paced video games like Tetris or Sims.

The purpose of the active control is that it is supposed to make expectations equivalent in the two groups. Boot et al.’s simple and valid point is that it probably doesn’t do that. People don’t believe playing Sims will improve attention.

The experimenters gathered some data on this point. They had subjects watch a brief video demonstrating what an action video game was like or what the active control game was like. Then they showed them videos of the measures of attention and perception that are often used in these experiments. And they asked subjects “if you played the video game a lot, do you think it would influence how well you would do on those other tasks?”

And sure enough, people think that action video games will help on measures of attention and perception. Importantly, they don’t think that they would have an impact on a measure like story recall. And subjects who saw the game Tetris were less likely to think it would help the perception measures, but were more likely to say it would help with mental rotation.

In other words, subjects see the underlying similarities between games and the outcome measures, and they figure that higher similarity between them means a greater likelihood of transfer.

As the authors note, this problem is not limited to the video gaming literature; the need for an active control that deals with subject expectations also applies to the brain training literature.

More broadly, it applies to studies of classroom interventions. Many of these studies don’t use active controls at all. The control is business-as-usual.

In that case, I suspect you have double the problem. You not only have the placebo effect affecting students, you also have one set of teachers asked to do something new, and another set teaching as they typically do. It seems at least plausible that the former will be extra reflective on their practice–they would almost have to be–and that alone might lead to improved student performance.

It’s hard to say how big these placebo effects might be, but this is something to watch for when you read research in the future.


Boot, W. R., Simons, D. J., Stothart, C. & Stutts, C. (2013). The pervasive problems with placebos in psychology: Why active control groups are not sufficient to rule out placebo effects. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 8, 445-454.