Placebo can enhance creativity

The placebo effect is usually studied in clinical settings for decreasing negative symptoms such as pain, depression and anxiety. There is interest in exploring the placebo effect also outside the clinic, for enhancing positive aspects of performance or cognition. Several studies indicate that placebo can enhance cognitive abilities including memory, implicit learning and general knowledge. Here, they authors ask whether placebo can enhance creativity, an important aspect of human cognition.

Subjects were randomly assigned to a control group who smelled and rated an odorant (n = 45), and a placebo group who were treated identically but were also told that the odorant increases creativity and reduces inhibitions (n = 45). Subjects completed a recently developed automated test for creativity, the creative foraging game (CFG), and a randomly chosen subset (n = 57) also completed two manual standardized creativity tests, the alternate uses test (AUT) and the Torrance test (TTCT). In all three tests, participants were asked to create as many original solutions and were scored for originality, flexibility and fluency.

The placebo group showed higher originality than the control group both in the CFG (p<0.04, effect size = 0.5) and in the AUT (p<0.05, effect size = 0.4), but not in the Torrance test. The placebo group also found more shapes outside of the standard categories found by a set of 100 CFG players in a previous study, a feature termed out-of-the-boxness (p<0.01, effect size = 0.6)

The findings indicate that placebo can enhance the originality aspect of creativity. This strengthens the view that placebo can be used not only to reduce negative clinical symptoms, but also to enhance positive aspects of cognition. Furthermore, we find that the impact of placebo on creativity can be tested by CFG, which can quantify multiple aspects of creative search without need for manual coding. This approach opens the way to explore the behavioral and neural mechanisms by which placebo might amplify creativity.

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