Use of Placebo Effects in Performance Enhancement

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Bérdi, Köteles, Hevesi, Szabo, and Bárdos (2011) have found in their meta-analysis that placebo was stimulating psycho-motor performance, the influence of heart rate, and diastolic blood pressure. The psychological processes involved are classic conditioning, expectations, and anxiety, which can be interrelated mechanisms activating neurochemical components of the body (Babel, 2009). All, McClung and Collings (2007), Beedie and Foad (2009), and Bérdi et al. (2011) report significant performance benefits from the use of placebo drugs that may be the result of the psychological expectancy effect and not that of the pills at all. The study of Saunders et al. (2016) tested the effect of caffeine in the case of the training of cycling athletes not knowing that they ingested the performance increasing substance with the result, that only when caffeine was identified its effects were realized. On the other side, athletes who found out that their supplements did not contain caffeine were facing damage to their performance development (Saunders et al., 2016).

According to Bérdi, Köteles, Hevesi, Bárdos, and Szabo (2015), two third of asked athletes would be ok with being deceived for effective performance improvement purposes. Interestingly, though, a much higher rate of ninety percent of coaches thought that deceptive use of placebos would be approved by their athletes (Szabo & Müller, 2016). Maybe that’s also why Szabo and Müller (2016) evaluate placebo induction in training and competition to be a problematic contemporary discussion in the sports world.

Sports philosophy argues that equal opportunity in sport should be a result of talent only, although it is acknowledged that even socio-economic factors render absolute fairness being an illusion anyway (Gleaves, 2017). By using the analogy from the field of cognitive enhancement, the accomplishment argument posits that cognitive enhancement aids are immoral in the sense of undermining humility as part of a healthy character (Goodman, 2014). Goodman (2014) suggests dealing with cognitive enhancement in an open and liberal way. Possibly the same is a fruitful way to go in sports. Halson and Martin (2013) put it that way: “So if belief effects are so powerful and have a biological basis, perhaps lying to win is perfectly acceptable (p. 598)”, but on the other side also mention that scientists have a responsibility to explain the evidence basis of the involved ergogenic aids as transparent as possible.




Bérdi, M., Köteles, F., Hevesi, K., Bárdos, G., & Szabo, A. (2015). Elite athletes’ attitudes towards the use of placebo-induced performance enhancement in sports. European Journal Of Sport Science, 15(4), 315-321.

Bérdi, M., Köteles, F., Hevesi, K., Szabo, A., & Bárdos, G. (2011). Placebo Effects in Sport and Exercise: A Meta-Analysis. European Journal Of Mental Health, 11(6), 196-212.

Gleaves, J. (2017). Beyond Prometheus, Strawmen, and Science Fiction: Ethicists and the Moral Debate Over Enhancements to Human Performance. Kinesiology Review, 6(1), 91-98.

Goodman, R. (2014). Humility Pills: Building an Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement. Journal Of Medicine And Philosophy, 39(3), 258-278.

Halson, S. L., & Martin, D. T. (2013). Lying to Win-Placebos and Sport Science. International Journal Of Sports Physiology & Performance, 8(6), 597-599.

McClung, M., & Collins, D. (2007). “Because I know It will!”: Placebo Effects of an Ergogenic Aid on Athletic Performance. Journal Of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29(3), 382-394.

Saunders, B., de Oliveira, L., da Silva, R., de Salles Painelli, V., Gonçalves, L., Yamaguchi, G., & … Maciel, E. (2016). Placebo in sports nutrition: A proof-of-principle study involving caffeine supplementation. Scandinavian Journal Of Medicine And Science In Sports, doi:10.1111/sms.12793

Szabo, A., & Müller, A. (2016). Coaches’ attitudes towards placebo interventions in sport. European Journal Of Sport Science, 16(3), 293-300. doi:10.1080/17461391.2015.1019572

  • Interesting article! Quite intriguing that the placebo effect can have such a great impact on athletes. From a philosophical perspective, I’d say it depends on whether you follow deontological or consequentialist ethics.

    The deontologists say that duty is above everything and the action is what holds importance. By this measure, it would be wrong to use the placebo effect to enhance the athlete’s performance since it would involve lying. Lying is considered wrong by deontologists I believe because it violates the principle of always telling the truth & also disrespects the autonomy of the person.

    Consequentialists, conversely, believe that the focus should be on the consequence of the action. Hence, if using the effect leads to a desirable consequence, then the effect is fair and good to use.

    Good read. Thanks for putting in the time to research and write the article. 🙂

  • “perhaps lying to win is perfectly acceptable”… Although I can understand the reason for a white lie (for instance to ‘keep peace’), lying to win is to me never acceptable.