Placebo effect in sports

The following is a sample Paper 3 that looks at structured interviews. Below you will first find the stimulus piece, followed by the static questions.  A copy of the mock paper is included to give students as an in-class assessment.

Potential answers are included in the hidden boxes below.

Student copy


Stimulus piece

The placebo effect has been a common topic of investigation in sports psychology. For example, athletes were led to believe that they had received anabolic steroids, carbohydrates or caffeine and consequently performed better than baseline or control groups. The focus in placebo research in sport is on the role of belief as a psychological factor in performance. Sports psychologists have argued that many technologies, products or substances which seem to have an effect on athletes’ performance have no clear biological basis but may simply be the result of the placebo effect.

The aim of this qualitative study was to investigate athletes’ experience of placebo effects in competition. The three researchers were all sports psychologists and had all previously been professional athletes. The snowball sample consisted of 7 American males and 7 females (N=14) from different sports. Each participant received a brief description of the placebo effect.

The researchers used structured interviews to collect data. All participants were asked (1) if they believed that performance could be influenced by the placebo effect or by similar false beliefs and (2) if they had ever experienced a moment in sport in which a false belief affected their performance.

A little more than half of the participants said they believed that the placebo effect had influenced their performance. They could recall an event in which a form of placebo effect or false belief had positively influenced their performance. An analysis of their responses identified factors such as rituals (for example, shaving one’s legs before a swimming competition), false beliefs based on receiving a substance (for example, receiving a drug that one believes can enhance performance) or false beliefs based on misperception (for example, a coach saying: You have already done this so you can do it again).

For example, a weightlifter explained that he was fooling himself into believing that he was lifting less on the bench-press and that this helped him to a better performance. The participants all pointed to the important factor of expectations in performance. The belief in the efficacy of a substance, training procedures or rituals was seen as the most important factor in the placebo effect. Many of the participants said they believed that performance could be manipulated by the placebo effect.

The researchers concluded that the power of belief ought to be taken into consideration when preparing athletes for competition. They suggest that the placebo effect could perhaps interact with the biological system to increase performance in a natural way but that more research is needed.

Based on Beedie, C.J. Placebo effects in competitive sports: Qualitative data. Journal of Sports, Science and Medicine (2007), 6, 21-28.


1a. Identify the method used and outline two characteristics of the method.

A structured interview. A structured interview is highly standardized, asking all interviewees the same questions. The amount of information gained in this type of interview, however, is limited.  The interview does not allow the researcher to ask additional questions and probe more deeply.  Such interviews are said to have high reliability.

1b. Describe the sampling method used in the study.

This is a snowball sample. This sampling technique is done by "spreading the word" among a group of friends that a study is being done. This saves time for the researcher, and it also helps to build up a rapport. If one of the athletes trusts the researcher, then his or her recommendation to other athletes to join the study is a great first step in establishing the trust necessary for an open and honest interview.

1c. Suggest an alternative research method giving one reason for your choice.

A semi-structured interview would allow researchers to go into more depth with regard to the athletes' experience, giving a great amount of data.  A focus group might also be used which would prompt the athletes to give responses that they may not recall if they are asked in a one-on-one interview.

2. Describe the ethical considerations that were applied in the study and explain if further ethical considerations could be applied.

The researcher would have to obtain informed consent from all participants.  They should be informed about the goal of the study as well as how the information will be used.  The identities of the athletes should be anonymized and information about them should be written in a way that does not allow them to be identified.  They should also be debriefed when the research has finished and the interpretation of the data shared. It does not appear that the interviews were recorded, so this is not a concern.  There is no clear evidence of undue stress or harm.  The participants should have been informed that they could withdraw from the study at any point.

3. To what extent could you generalize the findings of this study?

It is difficult to generalize these findings for several reasons. First, the sample of athletes is not only very small, but they all knew each other.  Snowball samples often lead to samples that have very similar characteristics and thus are not representative of the larger population.  In addition, the athletes were not all from the same sport.  This means that it is very difficult to draw a conclusion about "swimmers" or "weightlifters" based on the findings.  Finally, the sample is all American.  As the United States is an individualistic culture that focuses on achievement and individual decisions, it is not clear to what extent this dimension may have influenced the results of the study - compared to a collectivistic culture.
The research could be generalized to theory - meaning that from this a theory could be generated which could be tested in other groups of athletes. It is questionable whether this could be transferred to another situation - for example, placebo in a work environment or in schools.  As these situations have some significant differences, it would appear doubtful.  There is some degree of competition and "best scores" in both fields, but it is questionable whether a placebo would play a role as the focus is not on one's physical ability.
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