Do not dismiss placebos

Cricketers are known for being a superstitious bunch. While Sachin Tendulkar always wore his left pad first, Rahul Dravid started with his right thigh pad. When Anil Kumble was on his way to claim all 10 Pakistani wickets in an innings, Tendulkar kept taking his sweater and his cap to hand them to the umpire.

At first, when I learned about this, I thought about how world class sportspersons could follow these absurd rituals. But it is likely that they were onto something.

To explain these habits, we need to digress into the world of placebos. A placebo is defined as something prescribed to produce a psychological benefit to its recipient. This something could either be a sugar pill or a particular ritual. Placebos are studied to be as effective as medical treatments for several outcomes. They also boost sports performances.

We use placebos without our knowledge every single day. A simple ritual such as bathing everyday does more than merely clean our bodies. Having a bath primes us into a particular state of mind that fits into our daily rhythm, which is why skipping one feels so odd. The same goes for the wrapping around a gift package with a bow on the top. The packaging does nothing to functionally enhance our gift, but makes us feel better when we give or receive it. At the root of placebo is the Latin word placare, which is also the root of ‘placate’ and ‘pleasant’. What placebos do, is to trigger a positive state of mind by performing an action. And this action could range from ingesting a sugar pill to handing a teammate’s sweater to the umpire.

At the end of the day, if the reward for fooling yourself is taking a 10-wicket haul, I wouldn’t mind that one bit.

Inspiration: Seth Godin’s podcast episode on placebos

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