No matter what our opinions of 2016 are, for most of us January 1st will feel like a whole new world – a new lease on life and a new opportunity to take the world by it’s short hairs and give it a tug. Time to lose weight, aim for that raise we’ve been wanting, maybe get serious about meeting someone special.
In my mind I even see January 1st as a different color than December 31st – sort of a whitish hue to December’s dark green. (All the months tend to have different colors in my mind. I’m not sure if this is from all the construction paper calendars I did in grade school or some bizarre form of synesthesia.)
But of course months don’t have colors and we all understand that January1st is just the same as the days on either side of it. December 31st could just as easily have ended up as the first day of January, had we set up our calendars differently. In fact, there is nothing special about January 1st. It’s not an equinox or a solstice or the first full moon after a solstice – it’s just a random winter day.
Which is why I love that it’s the first day of the new year. It literally has no significance beyond what we humans put on it. In other words, it’s a placebo holiday.
Okay, I know that readers of this blog are probably sick of me droning on about placebos – and even more so of the gratuitous plugs for my book. But once you get into the logic of how placebos work in the brain, it’s kind of hard not to see them everywhere – in sports, in sex, in marketing, in lunch options. And in calendars.
But think about it, just like with a sugar pill, the first of the year is an arbitrary day that we have convinced ourselves has power and meaning. And just like the pill, it can actually have positive effects on our bodies. After all, what is New Year’s, if not a time for self-improvement?
This is a relatively untouched field of science in my opinion. John Norcross, a researcher at Scranton University, pops up every year around this time to talk about the science of New Year’s resolutions. (Speaking of placebos, this is coincidentally the same school whose paper celebrating the health benefits of green coffee bean extract was lauded by TV’s Dr. Oz and then roundly discredited, shown to be borderline fraud, and retracted.)
Norcross doesn’t actually publish much about New Year’s, but rather on how people change their behavior, especially when it comes to addiction. However, he does have one 2002 paper about New Year’s resolutions in which he finds that among the 282 people he surveyed, those who made resolutions stuck to them more than those who didn’t. Which isn’t actually all that surprising since the people without resolutions didn’t have anything to stick to.
He found that half of his sample made regular resolutions at New Years but few regularly make them stick (though half of them occasionally do). He also found that people in their 20s are way more likely to meet their goals than people over 50. Again, no surprise there.
Another more recent study showed that people were more likely to try and quit smoking during the New Year than any other time, but also showed that in the end weren’t any more successful in actually quitting than any other time of year. Pity.
So on the surface it looks like, while New Years might be a placebo, it’s a pretty crappy one. But let’s take a closer look at one of our favorite resolutions – losing weight. Fad diets are as common these days as magic enemas, miracle pills, and personal gurus. And that makes sense because many of them work via the same principle – tapping into our brains’ expectations.
Now, I know what you are going to say. Erik, changing my diet is a measurable, biological treatment for my body, unlike some hippie waving crystals around or shoving coffee up my pooper. After all, you are what you eat.
To that I would respond that clearly you have never shoved coffee up your pooper. But point taken. Going on a diet, on the surface, does not seem terribly placebo-like. Every diet – even the cookie diet – has some semblance of a scientific explanation as to how it will shed away the pounds and bring out a new, skinnier you.
But so does homeopathy, which has been shown again and again to rely heavily, if not completely, on the placebo effect. The difference is that diets are hard to compare against a placebo so we have no real way of knowing if they are effective. I mean, what would a placebo Atkins diet look like? Tofu steak? Good luck keeping people blind to that one.
The few studies that have been done show that belief and expectations can play a huge role in dieting. My favorite, out of Stanford, compares the bodily response of subjects given a 600-calorie shake in a sumptuous bottle to those given a 150-calorie shake out of a sparse-looking one.
With one caveat – both actually contained the same 300-calorie shake. And yet people’s ghrelin levels (a hormone involved in telling you when you are hungry as well as in metabolism) were completely different. People who thought they were getting a spike of calories saw their body go into to overdrive whereas the bodies of those who thought they had the diet shake seemed far more low key.
Now, ghrelin isn’t the end-all-be-all of digestion but it’s an interesting first look at this. And dollars to (diet) doughnuts we will someday learn that a whole host of other metabolic chemicals respond to placebos, which might help to explain why irritable bowels and Crohn’s disease respond so well to placebo.
So as you look ahead to this arbitrary winter day on Sunday, why not make out a list of resolutions? Though, you have to ask yourself, which has the larger effect over you: your new all-butter-and-basil-except-on-Tuesday-when-you-eat-pudding-and-celery diet or your belief in it? Really? Are you 100 percent sure of that?
Photo Credit: Jay Huang,
Many thanks to the Pulitzer Center, whose support has allowed me to write my book and many articles, including this one.