By now everyone and their dog knows what the placebo effect is; tell someone they are taking a pill that will make them feel better, and they'll generally report an increase in their happiness or a reduction in their pain, despite no efficacious medication being involved.
What's slightly more surprising is that this rule applies to the digital world too.
This week NewScientist reported that the placebo effect also applies to the digital gaming world. Gamers were taken through a game and told that their environment was being controlled by an adaptive AI that would customise their world uniquely for them. When asked to rate their experience with the game against a 'standard' version not using this non-existent adaptive AI, gamers generally rated the game as more immersive and more entertaining.
Which begs a very interesting question; can the placebo effect apply to other digital experiences, such as the design of overall Customer Experience strategies and approaches.
It's an interesting question, which also potentially crosses ethical boundaries. For example if you told visitors to a site that an AI was customising their experience for them and would help to make their visit the best possible (even when no such exists), you'd potentially see an uplift in perceived positive customer experience - though you'd be lying in order to see it.
But placebo's are necessarily used for untruth and obfuscation, they can have a very relevant place in treatment. My daughter broke her arm at an early age, a very nasty and painful break of several bones that needed major work. During her stay at the hospital she would sometimes hit her medication limit but still be in pain - at which point placebo's (in this case soft toys with 'magical pain-removing properties') were utilised. Whilst they didn't fix the problem they certainly helped.
There are instances where placebo's can help,in an ethical way. Take for example this app developed with medical specialists, to give people a knowing placebo on their phone to improve their life - in effect a self-delivered placebo. Think that won't work? Think again, read this research that shows deception is not in fact required for a placebo to work. Anyone who's ever used a Magic 8-ball knows it can't really
So back to the digital world. Could a digital placebo work, in an ethical way? Could you improve your Customer Experience with a placebo pill clearly marked..?
I don't have the answer to this but I'm betting the answer is yes. Let me paint a frame around two potential pictures.
Landscape number 1; as there is a measurable benefit of happiness gained from giving to charity, you could leverage a placebo around that issue. For example a site might ask people if they were to give to charity, which of these would they prefer? If the placebo effect holds as expected you would see a certain amount of happiness transferred from the faux giving. That doesn't need to detract from actual giving either, you'd start with the placebo and offer the chance to go further.
Landscape 2; there's an equally important psychological benefit to be had by telling other people about both the positive and negative customer experiences you've had. So what if a site were to offer a placebo version of that conversation; tell Paulo your Placebo mate just how great or terrible our customer experience was. As long as Paulo was clearly a placebo and responded with a placating response, you should see a placebo impact on overall satisfaction.
Okay, it's not perfect and it's not science, or at least not yet - but I'll bet a pack of placebos that it will be, soon.