Coffee Break, Anyone?

Topic: Wellness
Publication: Monitor on Psychology
Article: Caffeine’s wake-up call.
Blogger: Larry Martinez

We all have that one person in the office who just can’t function properly until they’ve had their cup of coffee in the morning (maybe it’s you).  And who doesn’t get a boost out of a candy bar and soda around mid-afternoon?  A short article in the APA Monitor synthesized some of the most relevant research on America’s favorite and most widely accepted drug: caffeine.

Issue 1:  Is there a placebo effect for caffeine? 
Well, like almost any other psychological question, the answer is “it depends.”  Forty-five minutes after participants received caffeinated coffee but thought they were given decaf, they reported more physiological withdrawal symptoms than every other group in this classic placebo experimental design (got/didn’t get caffeine, thought they got caffeine/thought they got decaf)..…  That is, if they expected they would feel sluggish and tired, they reported that way.  However, after a couple of hours, the placebo effect wore off.  So, from a physiological point of view, placebo effects only work in the short term.  You can’t fool your body for long though; it’ll soon realize what’s up and respond accordingly.

The second issue: Is there a performance boost gained from caffeine?
This one has another typical psychological answer,  “yes, but…”  Participants who were given caffeine performed better at a mundane task than those that were given a placebo, despite the fact that the placebo group reported that they felt the effects of caffeine and performed better because of them.  So, caffeine does give you a brief boost in performance.  BUT…let’s not forget:  It’s a drug (think psychoactive stimulant) and it can have harmful, addictive affects if it’s abused (i.e., cardiac problems, anxiety disorders, insomnia, digestive problems, withdrawal)!

The first issue + the second issue = a solution?
So, we see that there are performance benefits to caffeine, but we want to avoid consuming too much of it.  Let’s bring the placebo back in!  Military researchers in China found that people who consumed caffeine followed by placebos sustained attention better without consuming much caffeine.  That is, participants benefited from the initial boost that caffeine provides, as well as the benefits that come from simply believing they’d had caffeine (without the negative side-effects of actually having it).

Whether you decide to start clandestinely switching the coffeepot out for decaf at 10:30 is a decision you’ll have to make.  The point is that caffeine consumption is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  The benefits should be weighed with the risks, which are too often ignored.

Price, M. (2008). Caffeine’s wake-up call.  Monitor on Psychology, 39.