Productivity and the placebo effect

Ongoing studies show that a positive mind-set can have a measurable impact on performance, which offers some tantalizing insights for federal managers, writes columnist Steve Kelman.

Steve Kelman

In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale, a Protestant minister, published “The Power of Positive Thinking.” The book stayed on the New York Times best-sellers list for 186 weeks. I assumed it was out of print by now, but to my surprise, the book remains at about 8,000 on’s top-sellers list and ranks No. 51 under Spirituality/Inspirational and 62 under Mental Health/Happiness.

I remember thinking when I was younger that it was a stupid, misleading book because it suggested that simply wishing success on yourself could make it so.

I was wrong.

There is a large and growing body of research on the so-called placebo effect — the measurable impact a positive mind-set has on physical or performance states. The phrase comes from the old research finding that giving people a sugar pill for a malady will often reduce symptoms of the illness, and sometimes even help the person recover as long as he or she believes the pill to be a medication.

The assumption is that a positive mind-set induces certain physical responses in the body that help the body heal itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, the effect is particularly strong for medicines that deal with psychological problems, where the placebo effect of a drug is typically stronger than its actual pharmacological effect.

Now more and more research is establishing a mind-set effect in areas beyond medication. I recently heard about a 2007 study by Alia Crum and Ellen Langer that explores the relationship between exercise and health. In the study, which appeared in the journal Psychological Science, a group of housekeeping employees at hotels were told that the work they did was good exercise and were given examples of how the things they did in their jobs related to the surgeon general’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. A control group was given no such message.

Four weeks later, the behavior of the two groups had not changed, which means they had not become more active while doing their jobs. However, the employees who received the “your job is good exercise” message perceived themselves to be getting more exercise than they had previously. More important, their weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index all declined. The article — incidentally called “Mind-set Matters” — concluded that people’s mind-sets trigger processes inside their bodies that by themselves produce an improvement in outcomes.

Given the growing amount of research establishing that one’s mind-set can influence outcomes, it is time for managers to think about the implications for the workplace. At a minimum, the findings suggest that workplace enthusiasm and, on the flip side, negativity — sadly, perhaps the situation at more federal workplaces — have impacts beyond employees’ sense of satisfaction or well-being. Our mind-sets can actually have performance implications.

Encouraging managers to create a positive, enthusiastic mind-set among employees would seem to be a win-win strategy. Enthusiasm is a feeling most of us enjoy on a personal level, but it clearly has organizational and productivity benefits as well. Given that the current tight budget environment is more likely to create negative rather than positive mind-sets, this approach would appear to potentially offer a low-cost way to get more mission bang for the taxpayer buck.

NEXT STORY: VA leaders defend chief of staff