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Audiophile Placebo

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by catharsis, Apr 21, 2009.
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  1. Catharsis
    My apologies if this has already been covered elsewhere.

    I work in the field of nutritional science and research. My wife is involved in medical sciences and by nature we’re engrossed in a wonderful world of double-blind, placebo controlled studies on a daily basis; this experimental model is the gold standard in determining whether variable X has any affect on variable Y. Where possible, objective measurements (e.g. blood cholesterol, NK cell activity) are used, however subjective or self-reported changes are often used concurrently. Presently, this model is the most effective means of determining which drugs or chemicals have an impact (positive or negative) on a specific health outcome (such as pain, mobility, mood etc). By using a control group, and / or a placebo group, researchers can account for the confounding variable of what the test subject can “expect” when he or she is administered the independent variable (drug, chemical).

    It should be noted that in the majority of cases, if a subject does experience a positive result, it is because the subject expects the medicine to improve their health. Whether the subject was administered the drug, or a fake look alike (placebo) the majority of the benefit is experienced by both groups (sometimes test groups number in the 1000’s of people). A drug or chemical is only said to be effective if it produces an effect ABOVE AND BEYOND the placebo.

    The moral of the story here is that if people expect to achieve benefit, they will, regardless of whether any change actually occurred. If I give 100 people a bottle of snake oil and tell them that it will improve their mood, I can predict with statistical certainty that almost half of them will respond with improved mood. …..for a period of time. Immediately, anecdotal evidence and testimonials are called into question.

    What does this have to do with audio? Audio engineers or objectivists have been at odds with audio subjectivists for decades. A golden eared audiophile who claims that they can hear a difference by altering audio variable “x” is in essence no different than the statistical group who were duped by my snake oil. Maybe he or she is golden eared, or maybe they aren’t, but we are assumed to take their word for it by default. If they buy a more expensive cable they are expecting an improvement, and statistically they will – if they are using their human sense organs to interpret the data. And yet the audiophile’s golden ears insist that they trump all findings obtained in controlled audio experiments when it comes to cables, pebbles or CD markers. And hence, this often falsely perceived difference is why we rely on empirical data and measurements in field of science.

    Science uses controlled experiments and objective data for a reason – it’s trust worthy. Human interpretation of data from stimuli are not. Sometimes our observations are easily backed by solid measurable data (e.g. I think we can all agree that the DT770 is for bassheads, and the FQ graphs are in support of that observation). But when our senses defy all known sound physics / sound science, we have to wonder if our interpretations should be brought into question.

    I bring this up as a point of discussion, because as a scientist I have to be open to this logic (er…scientific mehod). I’m not trying to start an argument, but rather suggesting that all of us golden ears must admit that we are human and thus are subject to the placebo effect like anyone else. If there is a reason that we all agree to disagree on what we hear, I can’t think of a better reason that this. Perhaps I’m offering up this discussion to help reconcile my thoughts on the absolutely massive variance in opinions here at head-fi!

    Please don’t kill me.
     
  2. DistortingJack
    Your life is spared.
    [​IMG]
     
  3. Currawong Contributor
    This thread discusses the scientific merits of DBTs and might interest you.
     
  4. Uncle Erik Contributor
    No argument here, that was a well-written and informative post.

    Could you tell us about any examples or times when DBT failed to uncover a difference? I mean, have significant discoveries been made in fields other than audio that were hidden or obscured by DBT? Has a researcher in a field other than audio (assuming, arguendo, that there is a scientific basis to cable differences) made significant, observable and repeatable discoveries using non-traditional methods of testing?

    If there is another field, or even a particular discovery, that had tangible results (and I'm not talking testimonial evidence) by avoiding DBT, that would be significant. I don't know of any, but would like to know. If genuine advances are made elsewhere, then that might be something to consider. On the other hand, I think it would be significant to note if audio, somehow, falls outside the realm of all known scientific testing.
     
  5. Catharsis
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Uncle Erik /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    No argument here, that was a well-written and informative post.

    Could you tell us about any examples or times when DBT failed to uncover a difference? I mean, have significant discoveries been made in fields other than audio that were hidden or obscured by DBT? Has a researcher in a field other than audio (assuming, arguendo, that there is a scientific basis to cable differences) made significant, observable and repeatable discoveries using non-traditional methods of testing?

    If there is another field, or even a particular discovery, that had tangible results (and I'm not talking testimonial evidence) by avoiding DBT, that would be significant. I don't know of any, but would like to know. If genuine advances are made elsewhere, then that might be something to consider. On the other hand, I think it would be significant to note if audio, somehow, falls outside the realm of all known scientific testing.




    Well, because I'm short on time tonight I'll keep this brief.

    To my knowledge (within my limited experience and background), in any scientific field where sensory perception that is SELF-REPORTED, is involved in response to an independent variable, there is always a placebo effect to some extent. It might not be called the "placebo" effect, but the effect still persists nonetheless.

    The only situation to which I am familiar that is immune to the placebo effect are purely objective measurements such as total cholesterol. You can't "imagine" your cholesterol down to healthy levels no matter how hard you believe.

    So to answer your query, I would say that audio hardware changes that are expected to produce a change in musical output as measured by the human auditory senses would still produce a placebo effect.
     
  6. Sovkiller
    Placebo effect is always a variable that is taken into consideration in all statistical work that involve human senses, medicine, audio, etc...and sometimes not even related to the physical perceptions, and just the common sense...
    Also it is well known that many manufacturers/doctors/scientist/etc....know that fact and they also take advantage of that % to their favors, that is why we see nowadays hundreds of useless products in the market, and what is even worst, if they pay for an add, they can advertise all they want in any media, and nobody can deny it and say: that is BS man, stop that!!!!...Just take a look to how many miracles for loosing weight, re-grow hair, get younger, etc....we see a year to show up in the market....[​IMG]
     
  7. Hirsch
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Catharsis /img/forum/go_quote.gif

    The only situation to which I am familiar that is immune to the placebo effect are purely objective measurements such as total cholesterol. You can't "imagine" your cholesterol down to healthy levels no matter how hard you believe.




    Something to think about: If this were true, why would anyone bother to blind a drug test when there were objective measurements of success?

    (Hint: some "objective" measurements are indeed affected by expectancy.)
     
  8. Catharsis
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Hirsch /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    Something to think about: If this were true, why would anyone bother to blind a drug test when there were objective measurements of success?

    (Hint: some "objective" measurements are indeed affected by expectancy.)




    You did catch me on a technicality here (damn you for knowing so much about stuff [​IMG]). Many objective measurements are indeed a result of what is known as "top down control". Because the brain does have sympathetic and parasympathetic control over various organs / tissues, it is possible (and has been documented) that certain chemicals are released by the brain in response to a placebo that could potentially effect other chemicals / hormones produced elsewhere in the body. In the case of cholesterol for example, you could argue that happy chemcials such as dopamine and endorphins (produced by the brain) could have a postive effect on cholesterol levels as a result of feeling less "stressed" with an anti-anxiety medication placebo. The brain chemicals are in essence antecedant variables on other objective measurements.

    It is assumed that only a proportion of objective measurements will be a result of top down physiology, but the result is astonishing nonetheless and worth a lot of extra research. It is important to bear in mind too, that the double blind is to prevent researchers from fudging the interpretations of statistical objective data to suit a concious (or unconcious) agenda for the outcome.
     
  9. tintin47
    I completely agree. That said, the placebo effect in audio isn't necessarily a bad thing. If people want to/have to pay to convince their brains that the sound is better, I have no problem with it, though I do not subscribe to it myself. Perception is reality as far as audio is concerned.
     
  10. b0dhi
    I think DBTs/ABXs etc are valuable for someone to gauge, roughly, what they can consciously discern in terms of hearing. Subjective tests, however, I don't think are a valid way of testing the limits of hearing in humans in general in so far as it relates to musical enjoyment. What a DBT (or any other self-reported hearing test) is testing is a combination of aural memory and how well the brain in question can consciously process and discern sound in a concentrative state of mind. Neither of these may apply equally when it comes to listening to music. The state of mind is different, and musical listening may not depend on conscious ability to discern sound in the same way that a DBT requires.

    Unless the subject of the self-reported test is known (I stress known, not self-reported) to be at or near the apex of human hearing ability, there is always the possibility that someone else out there could perform an unknown degree better.

    IMO a much better way is to determine the threshold of audible discernability by measurements of aural stimuli from the ear-system to the brain.
     
  11. PhilS Contributor
    I don't think audiophiles deny the existence of the placebo effect. The question is, when someone asserts that some component sounds better than another, or different, is it due to the placebo effect or do they actually sound different? Certainly no one would say that a car radio sounds as good as a high fidelity home stereo and a preference for the former is solely attributable to placebo? So the issue becomes, how does one determine in any particular case that a preference or determination of a difference is attributable in whole or in part to placebo?
     
  12. JadeEast
    I'm not a big fan of the term placebo when used in terms of audio perception it's just too loaded a term with it's medical connotations. Expectancy bias or something else probably would work for most cases. Maybe its just me but I think it's a poor fit as far as a descriptive term in discussing audio perception.
     
  13. PhilS Contributor
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by JadeEast /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    I'm not a big fan of the term placebo when used in terms of audio perception it's just too loaded a term with it's medical connotations. Expectancy bias or something else probably would work for most cases. Maybe its just me but I think it's a poor fit as far as a descriptive term in discussing audio perception.



    I agree.
     
  14. i_don't_know
    This is why I like to make significant upgrades and try to find something that doesn't improve much with an amp. Less components = less risk of spending money on a product that will expose me to the placebo effect. Also, if I upgrade enough that just about anyone can hear the difference, I can hear the difference. I like to keep things as obvious as possible (in terms of the upgrade being significantly better).
     
  15. Catharsis
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by tintin47 /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    I completely agree. That said, the placebo effect in audio isn't necessarily a bad thing. If people want to/have to pay to convince their brains that the sound is better, I have no problem with it, though I do not subscribe to it myself. Perception is reality as far as audio is concerned.



    That was incredibly well said. The placebo is beneficial regardless of whether it stems from anything "real". Nice job.
     
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