NPR excitedly published a story on research that supposedly shows that you can will yourself to loose weight. The research was done by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer on hotel maids. To her amazement, she found that hotel maids – those women who seem to be on the move all the time – feel like they’re not getting any exercise. Reality is, though, that they are getting a lot. So, she set out to find out what would happen if she’d told them. The test group, 42 maids, were told that their “activity already met the surgeon general’s definition of an active lifestyle.” One month after that revelation, Langer’s team found marked improvements in those women’s health. This is hailed as a refutation of the placebo effect. But wait a second, I say, there is no placebo: These women are very active. They just didn’t think they were. So, a false belief was removed, which led to health improvements. The NPR article suggests “the theoretical possibility that, if done with genuine conviction, one might be able to sit around eating chocolate and still lose weight.” This is backwards. This was not a study of people who were not physically active and told to think they were. It is a study of the effects of knowing that you are physically active. Langer’s and NPR’s conclusion is misleading and contradicted by the study itself. The question the research raises is not “if we think we’re exercising but are not, can we get all the benefits of exercising” but rather the question is “if we think we’re not exercising but are, why does exercise lose all its health benefits?” There appears to be a blocking mechanism going on that is preventing the maids in the control group from gaining the benefits of the physical activity they do every day. I guess that observation is much more vexing than bashing the good old placebo effect. In some ways, there seems to be an anti-placebo effect in place: Can the unbelieving mind prevent medication or physical activity from working?