Placebo-philes | Anxious Machine →

February 10, 2014 |

Last week, Marco touched on a subject I’ve always found fascinating: how higher-end audio equipment (read: more expensive) doesn’t necessarily sound better after a certain quality threshold has been met. I find it funny because the audiophile world is full of enthusiastic people who swear by their equipment, and couldn’t possibly “compromise” when it comes to their listening experience.

Most of it is nonsense, of course. Why then, do people keep buying thousand-dollar headphones? Well, the main reason behind it is the placebo effect: When you know you spent a fortune on a pair of headphones, you have every incentive to convince yourself that they sound better. Even if they don’t, really. Especially when they don’t. Because the opposite would mean you’re just an idiot who spent his hard-earned cash chasing unicorns. Bad news is, you probably are. Sorry about that.

Oh, don’t take it personally. We all are.

The placebo effect is universal, and the more you think you’re immune to it, the more you will fall under its spell. Robert McGinley has an interesting take on this, which Marco also linked to last week:

I had moments almost as absurd with my headphones, when I heard things inside songs I swore Id never heard before, when I felt as if parts of the music were two dimensional backdrops and then three dimensional shapes would leap out of the picture towards me, or the music would drizzle over my head, or crackle like lightning, or Id swear I could smell the studio where the song had been recorded, or something.

It’s amazing how we convince ourselves of the most ridiculous claims in order to rationalize and justify our decisions. It’s just human nature, I suppose. However, what I particularly like about this issue is that, being a subjective experience, we can actually game the system and use the placebo effect to our benefit:

It's easy to sneer at the placebo effect, or to feel ashamed of it when you're its victim. And that's precisely why I found Felix Salmon's piece revelatory, because instead of sneering at the placebo effect of fancy wine, its marketing, and its slightly higher prices, he thinks we should take advantage of it. If the placebo effect makes us happy, why not take advantage of that happiness?

Why not, indeed?