Productivity and the placebo effect

Steve KelmanIn 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.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Tue, Oct 23, 2012

This is where you have practice what you preach. As pointed out, pretending to have a smily face all day won't help anything, especially if perceived as just being oblivious to the issues, or worse, just pretending to be positive so you can squeeze more out of already stressed empoyees. But this is about how you personally will deal with issues. Even in the darkest sitautions, having a postive attitude will help you and avoid many of the stress related problems that develop inside you. For me, I try to let my faith drive positive approaches in knowing there is something bigger than my petty problems. You may find other ways, but the point is to find them. If you can help others find them too, in an honest manner, you will experience benefits.

Tue, Oct 16, 2012 B Pierce Denver, CO

Nice article, and I have to chuckle at the spot-on comments so far... IMHO, Steve Kelman's point is NOT to just ‘get out the sunshine pump’, but rather that a manager who genuinely believes that the team CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE does truly inspire enthusiasm. What I would like to add is that positive beliefs must be shored up by proofs, driving out risk, and increasing confidence… When one can clearly illustrate the path between the current state and the desired goal, and populate the critical path items with factual datapoints even if they are extrapolations but they are realistic and defensible, the perception of risk is seriously lowered and the resulting enthusiasm can build even stronger momentum, because people like to work on WINNER projects - Fed or private sector...

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 Bill

Feel good article if there ever was one! I absolutely agree with the comment above ("Managers cheerully pedaling....."). Federal employees are under attack with anger I've never seen in my 28 yrs as a fed. Not only would a manager look like a total baffoon "pedaling" happy thoughts, he/she would also be doing a disservice to those younger personnel who still have time to make a change and get out. Remember since 1983, there are no "golden chains" like the CSRS retirement system. That system makes one want to stay forever to build his/her annuity. FERS has no such appeal. So, managers need to be realistic so younger folks can see what their future is going to be like in the federal government and take action while they still can.

Thu, Oct 11, 2012

Managers cheerfully pedaling enthusiasm in this political environment would degrade their credibility. Federal employees are not stupid. Unlike a sugar pill with a medication label, the truth of the political situation is all too evident to the Federal workforce. Humming "Don't worry, be happy!" won't help.

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