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The placebo effect is best known in medicine for making people feel better when they are given sham treatments. Now there is growing interest in using placebos to boost athletic and cognitive abilities.

Previous studies have found that people lift more weight and cycle harder when they take medicines with no active ingredients that are falsely labelled as performance-enhancing substances. Placebo pills have also been shown to improve scores in memory tests.

These findings prompted Lior Noy and Liron Rozenkrantz at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to test whether the placebo effect can stimulate creativity too.

They asked 90 university students to sniff a substance that smelled of cinnamon. Half the students were informed that the substance had been designed to enhance creativity.

The participants then completed a series of tasks designed to test their creativity. One involved rearranging squares on a computer screen into different shapes. Another required them to think up new uses for everyday items like shoes, pins and buttons.

Those who were told the smelly substance increased creativity scored higher on measures of originality. For example, they came up with more unusual shape configurations and novel applications for the everyday items. “The improvements weren’t enough to turn you into the next Picasso, but they were significant,” says Noy.

Safe space

By making the participants feel like they had extra help, the placebo probably made them feel more confident and adventurous, says Rozenkrantz. “Lots of people, including myself, fear creative tasks. If someone asks me to do something creative, I freeze and worry I won’t be good enough,” she says. “We think the placebo removes this mental block and allows people to feel more supported and let go of their fears.”

David Cropley at the University of South Australia agrees. “Even telling people to be more creative leads to increases in creativity, so this result doesn’t surprise me,” he says. The placebo likely enhanced creativity by bolstering the volunteers’ self-confidence and giving them “permission to be creative”, he says.

Noy and Rozenkrantz believe their findings could be used by bosses and teachers to nudge their employees and students into more original thought. “Maybe you don’t even need to give them a placebo – it might be enough to just tell them they’re creative, emphasise past successes and make a more secure environment to enhance their self-belief,” says Noy.

It may also be possible to achieve the same effect with “honest placebos”, says Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard University. He has shown that placebo pills improve symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pain, even when they know they are shams. “Then it would be usable and ethical in the real world,” he says.

Mind bending

The research reinforces other studies showing that creativity is not fixed, says James Kaufman at the University of Connecticut. “There’s a lot of evidence that you can nurture or suppress creativity,” he says. “Obviously, individual differences also play a role, but the ways that teachers give feedback and organisations reward employees have huge impacts.”

For example, one study found that when hotel employees in China received more positive feedback from their bosses, they demonstrated more creativity in solving day-to-day problems. Another study at a US car manufacturer showed that abusive behaviour by supervisors undermined employee creativity.

An important next step will be to confirm that placebos increase creativity in the real world and not just in lab conditions, says Kaufman. “Can they help people come up with more original art, writing, scientific hypotheses, advertising campaigns or other work-related tasks?” he asks.

Research is also needed to uncover the mechanisms involved, says Noy. In medical contexts, placebos appear to reduce pain and depression by triggering the release of natural opioids in the brain, but it is unclear how they work in the creativity context.

“I firmly believe that everyone is creative,” says Noy. “Even a three-year-old can pick up a stick and imagine it’s a rocket. We want to see how you can develop and enhance that ability.”