Saturday, December 27, 2014

Play for Placebo

A Placebo is a scientifically ineffectual placeholder. It is used in Double-blind tests to check the facts behind a theory. Some people being 'exposed' to whatever the thing being tested is will get a placebo. They will think they are getting/doing/experiencing the thing, but in fact they aren't. It is called double blind since the experimenter doesn't know who is receiving the real deal and who isn't either. This is a way to strip out people's biases. The age old story of you will only see if you really believe can be true. You will see. The mind is incredibly powerful. Stories are incredibly powerful. It is hard to call what people are experiencing faking. I also think that if you insist on discarding everything that has been proven to be a placebo effect, i.e. it works simply because you want it to, you can miss out. Much like watching a movie, if you don't suspend your disbelief, you don't get to enjoy the story.

Benjamin Wallace tested 12 incredibly expensive things in an attempt to test whether you can buy happiness. It is a wonderful clip. It ends with the well known point that people really do enjoy expensive wines more, not necessarily because they are better, but because they are expensive. He doesn't say that everything that is expensive isn't really worth it. The two they have stuck with me from this clip is that it is worth spending a little extra on your bed. You spend a third of your life in it. It is also probably worth getting a Japanese toilet.

So what do you do? Do you not buy expensive wines even if you can afford them because you don't want to be a sucker? Do you buy cheaper wines and hypnotise yourself into thinking they are more expensive. You can't really make a deal with friends and family to occasionally lie to each other about the value of things since once the deal is made you will always be suspicious. Or will you? Perhaps you will forget the deal and allow the occasional lavish story to pass by undetected, because you want to believe it.

I think beyond a certain level of consumption, a lot of pleasure becomes about the story value. 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' by Francis Bacon was sold in November 2013 for $142m. Here the price tag is largely for the way something makes someone feel. The word priceless springs to mind. Since if this is indeed a 'placebo effect' where some trickery and conspiracy can give the same feeling, then those without money but with a desire to control their mind could have a one person lottery ticket.

One of the reasons I don't like the statistics regarding income distribution as a point of equality is that I think they distract from what the people using them are actually most concerned about. If your aim is to have people having equal access to happiness, then absolute poverty and 'placebo free' consumption equality should be of far more concern. Then the artists, musicians, poets, writers, dancers and actors can add all the story value you want. Don't pay for placebo, play for placebo.
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