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Placebo-philes

I’m sure we have all heard of a Placebo and have a general understanding of the term “placebo effect”. One of the most common references to the placebo effect is the way Doctors use sugar pills (placebos) in clinical trials, and the results can be surprising.

So what does a placebo do? Well…

placebo’s change the user’s perception or expectation. Any time a story or ritual changes the way we encounter something, we’ve experienced the placebo effect.

“A placebo is a story we tell ourselves that changes the way our brain and our body work” – Ted Kaptchuk

Did you know that a placebo is the most important element of marketing? Not only important but essential and evident in almost every interaction with we have in the outside world.

Here are some examples of how placebos are used in everyday life:

  • Theme parks intentionally control wait times in queues such that your anticipation increases before the ride, and hence your ride satisfaction is increased.
  • A skilled Sommelier at a restaurant explaining the characteristics of a wine before pouring increases the overall satisfaction of the dinner.
  • Progress bars when installing software on computers, the anticipation of progress gives the user satisfaction and reduces stress.

It is a known fact that the way an object is sold/represented can dramatically change the user’s experience. Car audio manufacturers and marketers have spent millions creating product comparisons and then selling them to us, in the effort to get us to choose their brand over the other brand. Depending on the language and context, these comparisons will inevitably lead to a placebo effect and better satisfaction for the buyer. Simply put… It’s better because I think it’s better.

Never let a car audio salesperson demonstrating his/her audio product tell you what you are going to hear before you actually listen for yourself. This is better known as confirmation bias, which occurs when we are expecting something to happen.

For example, the manufacturer tells you his amplifier will reveal the subtleties of the music better than amplifier brand XYZ, and then you listen and “hear” the difference. Similarly when a respected manufacturer tells us his $5000.00 RCA cables have sonic superiority over brand XYZ’s $500.00 cables.

It’s only natural that when we spend a lot of money on equipment, we want them to sound better. When an industry manufacturer/leader tells us to expect something to occur, we look for it to happen.

“If we want something to sound better we’re likely to convince ourselves it does. And we hear it! But, over time, the so-called improvement we so hoped for fades if it is only a placebo. Which is one good reason to go back and retest your assumptions to clear the hype from the reality”. Paul McGowan (PS-Audio)

This is not to say that high-end equipment has no impact on the sound quality. The point is nobody likes being wrong, and once expectation is imprinted into your brain, we are naturally going to do what we can to make the expectation happen. We are all guilty of this in some way shape or form, in particular, we sometimes end up listening to the equipment rather than the music as a way of justifying our purchases.

I am guilty of being an “Audio-Nostalgiaphile”. I love my old-school equipment and remember with great fondness the joy of using that equipment and the era in which it was produced. Some old-school car audio guys I know argue that the equipment sounded better back in the day, and I wonder if they are also closet audio-nostalgiaphiles?

I believe that the placebo effect is actually not a bad thing. If you obtain joy from listening to a beat up old-school amplifier over a modern hand-built class-A amplifier worth $10,000.00, then that’s a good thing.

The measurement of our happiness and well-being is inside each of us, it’s personal, and not something others can measure. If your car audio system makes you happy, then that is all that matters. If you think the music sounds better on your system and you derive pleasure from the experience, surely this is a good thing?

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