I suspect that we’ve all heard of the placebo effect.

Pencil with "Y" Circled For Yes

It’s pretty old concept but I first came across it when learning how new drugs were tested to see if they were better than the existing drugs – or any good at all! What we learn from these studies is that being given a sugar pill while being told it’s good for you – that is, we have the expectation the pill will do us good – really works, or at least for some people some of the time. The figures seem to show that  when you are told you are given a powerful and effective drug you believe it and experience a significant beneficial effect.

Now Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan have gone a step further, by showing how they can boost the general knowledge performance of students in quizzes.

The groups of 20 students were each asked to answer multiple choice questions that flashed up on a screen in front of them. To give them a helping hand, the answers were very helpfully flashed onto the screen just moments before the question. Nice!

The researchers then reduced the length of time that the answers appeared for – they were still there but the flash was quicker and briefer until it reached the point where it was too quick for conscious awareness. The answer was just a subliminal flash of photons on the screen. Were the students aware of this? Well, judging by the results, yes, as the correct score ranking of students seeing the subliminal answers was above those who didn’t have such help.

So, just to check (you know what researchers can be like!) they told other groups of students that they would be presented with answers subliminally in advance but in reality they flashed not answers on the screen but random letters… What happened to the students’ scores?

As it turns out, the scores  of students who thought they were getting the answers subliminally were still higher than the scores of control groups of people who hadn’t been given any expectation of seeing the answers at all. What?! This drug-free placebo effect is increasing the rate of correct answers?!

Now forget what you might have learned about mind over matter. When it comes to knowing quiz  answers you either know stuff or you don’t. However, knowing stuff and remembering it are two different things as most of us know!

When it comes to being tested, two things can have a measurable effect. The first is whether or not we are confident and expect to do well.  Obviously, being told that we will be given the answers in advance is a pretty good boost to our confidence. The second element is performance anxiety – we worry or stress because we’re being tested. This stress can get in the way of us remembering an answer we know or making connections to some unusual bit of information. Again, if we believe we’re being given the answers it’s highly likely we’ll be less anxious.

So the simple fact of believing that we will be told the answers makes it more likely that we will remember the answer that we already know.

This just proves that understanding how your brain actually works, particularly in times of stress, can give you a real head start. Without subliminal answers or placebos, if we can learn how to reduce anxiety and maximise the creative and resourceful states of our brain we can expect to see improvements in our performance. It’s this sort of information that is really opening the doors to a new science of brain-based coaching and bringing reliable performance and achievement within our grasp.

And pub quizzes might never be the same again!