The Psychological Appeal of Snake Oil

On the surface, it would seem that Christie Aschwanden’s Good to go: What the athlete in all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery is simply a book about her adventures through the elaborate world of sports recovery. However, when a work like this is written by one the best science writers in the world , there is much to learn not only from the way she combines narrative with a clear synthesis of what the scientific evidence actually supports, but also about how the world of sports recovery can teach us something more fundamental about human nature. I asked Christie some questions about her book, in particular how it applies to the replication crisis in psychology, sports science and the broader social sciences, self-help culture, and the subtle psychological appeal of snake oil. As Christie sums it up: “We seem drawn to the belief that our lives can be made better with ‘one weird trick.’”

Good To Go is about your adventures through the world of sports recovery. But I think what you learned is more broadly about human psychology – especially about what we are susceptible to believe when it comes to products that promise us faster recovery, easier aging, a higher intelligence, or improved education. Can you speak to how what you learned might have parallels in markets outside of sports?

Christie Aschwanden, used with permissionSource: Christie Aschwanden, used with permission

We seem drawn to the belief that our lives can be made better with “one weird trick.” (I’m not immune. I can’t seem to shake the idea that if only I create a perfect to do list, I will cease the struggle to manage my time.) We’ve been primed to think that there’s a better version of ourselves out there just waiting for us to find it. The hope that a life hack or two will make our lives better isn’t inherently ridiculous. For instance, my research convinced me that simply sleeping more could make most people feel, recover and perform much better in most aspects of their lives. But the real trick here is to prioritize sleep, which inevitably requires giving less priority to other things in our lives. That can require tough choices, so it’s appealing to think that all will be solved if we download an app or purchase a product. The problem is that looking outwardly for solutions can prevent us from being fully present and aware of the decisions we’re making. With recovery, this manifests as people spending so much time and effort actively doing things for recovery that they never stop to relax and be still.

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One of your chapters is titled “Selling Snake Oil” where you visit a GNC and your local health store. What struck you the most from those visits?

How mainstream sports supplements have become. While reporting this book, I discovered that my local health food store had the greater part of an aisle devoted to recovery shakes and drinks and supplements, and these products also turned up at sporting good stores and supermarkets.

These products tend to exploit the fear that we might be missing out. Sure, you eat a pretty healthy diet, but are your vitamin levels truly optimal? Could a little bit more of some nutrient give your body a little boost? As I explain in that chapter, there is very little evidence that nutritional supplements help athletes, and numerous examples of athletes failing drug tests after taking a supplement that was tainted with a banned substance. Supplements aren’t subject to the same regulatory oversight that drugs get, and so it’s hard to be sure of what you’re getting. But supplements have become so widespread (in part because of marketing and sponsorship money) that there’s a sense that everyone is taking them, and no one wants to be left out.

You’ve written a great deal about methods problems in sports science but also in psychology . What is your take on how methods problems across the two fields may be contributing to the “just-so science” we still find out there? And what are the implications for sports science and psychology and the self-help cultures that permeate both?

Science is a really powerful method for seeking truth, but it’s done by humans, who are fallible. The central problem here, which is vastly under-appreciated by the general public, is that doing science is hard. We want answers that are generalizable to all situations, but studies can only answer very specific questions and the answers they provide aren’t automatically applicable to other conditions. In the book, I write about wanting to know whether drinking a beer after a hard run would harm my recovery, but that’s a deceptively complex question.

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The first problem you run into is one of definitions and measurement—what do you mean by recovery and how will you measure it? You can come up with definitions and measurements that you can take in a lab setting, but do these apply to ordinary life? It’s very easy to get sidetracked by enticing results that may not be reproducible or generalizable. In the case of beer and running, I was involved in a study that seemed to suggest that beer enhanced recovery in women and impaired it in men. It was a headline grabbing result, but it was hard for me to put much trust in it, because our sample size was small and our measure of recovery didn’t feel like one that was representative of the real-life situations I cared about. One of the takeaways is that methods really matter, and another is that one study isn’t enough to give definitive evidence. Results need confirmation, and it’s important to consider the ways you might have been wrong.

There are many very promising efforts underway now that aim to improve the rigor and reproducibility of science—things like preregistration, registered reports and open data sharing. I wrote about how these approaches are improving psychology , and now they’re being discussed in sports science too. There’s a new group that recently formed in sports science to address these issues. It’s called Society for Transparency, Openness, and Replication in Kinesiology (STORK) , and it’s modeled after the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS) . It’s an exciting time.