Athletes have always been superstitious people. I think this stems in large part from how invested they are in winning and the competitive nature of their lives. Athletes will leap at opportunities to improve their performance, but this desire can manifest itself in positive ways (finding the best coaches, grinding out long training sessions, making personal sacrifices to commit to their sports) and in negative ways (anabolic steroids, blood doping, erythropoietin). A slightly more innocuous manifestation is superstitions.
In a modern Pascal’s wager, athletes will often engage in “unfounded” traditions, repetitions, and praxis because it seemed to work before. Perhaps no sport is more famous for its superstitions than baseball: rally-caps, playoff beards, Jobu’s rum, none of these things should be trifled with. Recently, however, enterprising business people have capitalized on athletes’ willingness to take any advantage, and have begun marketing unproven and expensive contraptions that make wild claims about their ability to improve performance. (In this post, I am going to take direct aim at Power Balance Performance Technology, but Phiton Bracelets and Q-Ray Bracelets are also on my list!).
If you're not familiar with Power Balance, check it out here. Let me present from text from the Power Balance Performance Technology Web Site:
“Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to respond to the natural energy field of the body. The Mylar material at the core of Power Balance has been treated with energy waves at specific frequencies. The resulting Mylar is believed to resonate and work with your body’s natural energy flow to help enable you to perform at the best of your ability.”
Power Balance claims that a “Mylar hologram” contained within the bracelet can improve your balance, strength, and flexibility. Mylar (or Biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate) is a reflective polyester film used in industry for chemical stability, tensile strength, and insulating properties. How does a hologram imprinted on Mylar film “optimize the body’s natural energy flow?” Better still, what is the natural energy field of the body? Just questions. Moving on…
“Power Balance will not make you stronger than you are, but is designed to help make you as strong as you should be by interacting with your body’s natural energy flow.”
Interesting. So, power balance won’t make me stonger? But will make me as strong as I should be… what if I’m not already as strong as I should be? I feel like squirrels are chasing each other around in my brain…
“Millions of people around the globe are wearing Power Balance products and are thrilled with the results. Dozens of high profile professional athletes swear by the results they've experienced from wearing our products." CNBC recently named Power Balance as the "Sports Product of the Year for 2010." Our bracelet was also one of Amazon's 'Top 5 Best Sellers' during the recent holiday shopping season.”
Whoah, this has suddenly moved from charming to malevolent. Power Balance products include a ten-pack of stick-on embedded holograms ($59.95), a pendant ($39.95), a wristband ($29.95), and an eight-pack of pocket cards ($59.95). Let’s assume that these millions of people around the world all went with the cheapest option – the $30 wrist band – this means that Power Balance has taken at least $60 million ($30 x 2 million people) from people paying for an untested product!
Some might squeal, “But these products are tested! I’ve seen the tests on Youtube.” These tests consist of a tester and a testee going through a series of exercises purportedly testing balance, strength, and flexibility while the testee is either wearing or not wearing a Power Balance card/bracelet. In all of these tests, the amount of force applied is subjective, the location of the force is not controlled, the Power Balance “test” always comes second, both parties know when the card/bracelet is in use, and they know what is expected to happen. This is a beautiful recipe for self-deception, which is to say, placebo. Although I was unable to find any work published in academic journals, the evidence is pretty solid that these bracelets are placebos (Australian Skeptics).
Placebos in athletic performance are a very real empirical phenomenon (for a review see Beedie & Foad, 2009). One study (Maganaris et al., 2000) investigated the effects of placebos on the performance of 11 nationally ranked power-lifters. The authors has two major hypotheses that they were interested in testing: (a) that the placebo would have positive effect on maximum strength testing and (b) once the deception was revealed, performance would return to baseline (suggesting the placebo increased strength through purely cognitive mechanisms such as expectations and conceptions of ability). Baseline data was collected in the bench press, dead lift, and squat. One week later, subjects were given what they were told was a fast-acting anabolic steroid, which in reality was an inert substance, and retested. Performance in the 3 lifts improved significantly (+3.5, +4.2, and +5.2%, respectively). In the following week, half of the subjects had the deception revealed and the other half continued to belief they were taking a steroid. The group who were made aware of the deception had a marked decrease in their improvement (-1.7, -.4, and +4%, respectively), whereas the group who believed they were still taking steroid continued to improve (+3.2, 4.4, and +4.2%, respectively).
But power based sports are not unique in their susceptibility to placebos; we have placebos for endurance athletes as well. McClung & Collins (2007) studied the physiological and psychological effects of sodium bicarbonate supplementation in 16 track athletes. These runners completed 5 x 1,000m time trials under various conditions. For every subject, there was one habituation trial and four counterbalanced experimental trials: (i) informed drug/received drug, (ii) informed drug/received placebo, (iii) informed placebo/received drug, (iv) informed placebo/received placebo. McClung and Collins collected measures of time, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE), and blood lactate. The results showed that subjects who believed they consumed sodium bicarbonate (regardless of whether or not they did) ran significantly faster, however there was no change in the underlying physiology (i.e., blood lactate levels) or in RPE. This suggests that the positive effects of ingesting sodium bicarbonate were due to expectancy alone!!!
So why do I have such a big problem with this? Placebos do work, just not for the reasons that people believe and therefore I would treat it as harmless... until it becomes a scam. If you think that eating chocolate chip cookies before a game makes you better (as I have read that Brian Urlacher does), I think that is great. If you think that you shouldn't have sex for three weeks before a fight (sage, but strange wisdom I have heard from Ultimate Fighters), go for it. But if you start to charge people gratuitous sums of money for something that has no basis in reality, then we have a serious problem, and I think the best way to fight this is through your power as a consumer. Basically I think the title of this post says it all, "stop spending money on shit you don't need!" I'll admit that I am as guilty of this as the next person... not in terms of placebos, but technology. Many an REI sales rep has boosted their commission by telling me that something is whatever proof. Do I really need a watch that is water resistant to a depth of 100m while simultaneously being dust proof?
Hell yes! I don't want to be caught off guard when it starts flooding during my epic trail run through Death Valley... when I swim to safety I'll impress everybody with how hardcore I am when my watch still works!