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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Placebos: They're Not Just for Pills Anymore

That's a weird title for a post, isn't it? But a placebo, in case you didn't know, is a substance that creates a desired effect merely by suggestion. Placebos are commonly used when testing new drugs -- one group of test subjects, called the control group, is given something that may be no more than a sugar pill but they're told it's a new high-powered medicine. Sometimes the placebo has an effect almost as good as the real medicine, simply because the control group subjects BELIEVED it would.

Well, it appears some researchers at the University of Notre Dame conducted a similar test using golf equipment... and found that there's a placebo effect with that as well. (This is the link to the original article at

Player putting a ball

I found out about the test from this post at Golf Digest. And to be honest, I think it's not just enlightening but funny as well.

You can read the Golf Digest post and the research posted at to get the full story, but here's the condensed version:
Players who believe that their equipment gives them an advantage when putting -- and presumably when making other shots as well -- tend to play better than those who believe they're just using regular equipment. And the effect is greater for poor players than good players. However, those players will not credit the equipment; they will believe they just putted better.
The irony here is that they really DID putt better because of their confidence and not the equipment... but they wouldn't have putted better if they didn't believe their equipment WAS better. Sort of Catch-22, don't you think?

What I think this really proves is that many players are struggling just because they THINK they're struggling. Or, to put it another way, they struggle because they EXPECT to struggle. So, if you follow this to its logical conclusion, those players should be able to improve if they just expect to play better.

Of course, many of you have probably tried this -- can you say 'positive mindset'? -- but it didn't give you the results you hoped for. Worst of all, you don't know why it didn't work.

Let's see if I can help you improve without buying new equipment.

The real problem here is unrealistic expectations. Most of our expectations are subjective -- that is, we don't have any concrete measuring stick to compare our 'before' and 'after' results. Unlike the Tour pros, we don't have a detailed list of stats showing how many putts we make from various distances or how many we make overall. Without those, we're forced to guess how many putts we THINK we should make, and then make our comparisons with that.

And we always think we should make more putts than we do. It's just human nature to think we should be better than we are. Why else would pro golfers rebuild their swings after they win a major?

I hate to use psychologist talk here, but the key really is to be more concerned with the process than the results. We have to make our judgments based on how well we execute the putt -- did I start it on the line I chose? did I stroke it too softly, too hard or just right? -- and accept the fact that we might do everything correctly and still miss the putt. That's just the nature of being imperfect humans living in an imperfect world.

Otherwise you're just depending on a placebo effect. That's what the Notre Dame research tells us. And, as drug manufacturers will tell you, that's not going to give you any lasting results.

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