Lefty’s Placebo Effect

Like many I watched the Master’s golf tournament this past weekend. On Saturday, Phil Mickelson finished the day five under par to set himself up in third place going into the final round. For some reason, in Mickelson’s post-round interview, the CBS analyst asked Phil what his wardrobe plans were for the next day.

Mickelson said he always wears dark colors during the final round of a tournament because studies have shown that NFL teams that wear dark jersey colors are more heavily penalized, meaning they play more aggressively. The implication being that Phil likes to take chances in the final round of a tournament.

This line of reasoning is fascinating to me from a behavioral and psychological perspective. I did some research and found the study he referenced and sure enough, he was right:

Black is viewed as the color of evil and death in virtually all cultures. With this association in mind, we were interested in whether a cue as subtle as the color of a person’s clothing might have a significant impact on his or her behavior. To test this possibility, we examined whether professional football and ice hockey teams that wear black uniforms are more aggressive than those that wear nonblack uniforms. An analysis of the penalty records of the National Football League and the National Hockey League indicate that teams with black uniforms in both sports ranked near the top of their leagues in penalties through the period of study. On those occasions when a team switched from nonblack to black uniforms, the switch was accompanied by an immediate increase in penalties.

Behavioral Psychologist Dan Ariely has done extensive work on the placebo effect, which shows that a fake treatment can actually improve someone’s medical condition if it changes the person’s expectations. In a way, Mickelson is utilizing the placebo effect to get himself to play more aggressively during the final round of a tournament.

In one of Ariely’s experiments, researchers applied electric shocks to people’s wrist, both before and after taking a pill which was a placebo, so it has no therapeutic effects whatsoever. They also told half the patients the “pain reliever” cost $2.50 per does and the other half that it costs just 10 cents. Not only did the placebo dummy pills cause people to report a relief from the pain of the shocks, but 85% of the people using expensive pills said they found significant plain relief compared to just 61% of those taking the cheaper pills.

This reminded me of another study I recently read that dealt with the sleeping aid, Ambien. It turns out Ambien doesn’t actually help people sleep more. In one study people only slept 18 more minutes a night. The reason it works is because it’s an amnesiac. It helps people forget that they didn’t have a good night’s sleep so they aren’t constantly reminded of being tired. So it destroys the narrative in your mind that you had a poor night’s rest.

It’s amazing how perception can shape our reality.

It would be easy to read studies like this and assume that people are completely irrational if they are forced to use these types of psychological tactics to function. While it’s true that human nature causes irrational behavior on a consistent basis, I actually think it’s great that people are able to find ways to trick themselves, even if the reasons don’t make any sense from an outsider’s perspective. Eventually, everyone has to figure out ways to combat their lesser self.

It’s difficult to say whether Mickelson’s aggressive style has helped or hurt him over the years. He’s won the Master’s on three occasions along with victories at two of the other major championships. But he’s also finished second place at the elusive U.S. Open six different times as well as a combined seven more second place finishes at the other three majors (this includes a tie for second in this year’s tournament, but you can’t exactly blame being aggressive on this one with how well Jordan Spieth was playing).

Turns Out Phil Mickelson Was Right About Study That Black Uniforms Increase Aggression (Golf Digest)
Predictably Irrational
What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn)

Further Reading:
My Favorite Non-Investing Books About Investing

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  1. Keith commented on Apr 15

    I am a long time golfer and fan of the game. Mickelson’s aggressive style has definitely helped him over the years because he is playing with the mindset that fits his personality and psychology as a person. He is known as a gambler both on the course and off, and his strategy and style of play is in keeping with how he views the world and the game of golf.

    If Mickelson tried to play conservatively, he would not be as successful because that would be in conflict with his true nature. He will always be a power player that makes lots of birdies, but a few bogies will be part of the score.

    • Ben commented on Apr 15

      I tend to agree. It would be difficult to change his stripes at this point and being aggressive is what got him here in the first place. The only one I think think mindset hurts him in is the US Open where they make the courses so difficult. But you can’t really argue with the results.

  2. Stock Kevin commented on Apr 15

    Very interesting to see how you can trick yourself into how you want to feel

    • Ben commented on Apr 15

      Yes, the human brain is quite a complex thing to figure out sometimes.