The Consumer Neuroscience Company
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28. September 2017

Energy drinks – it’s all in your head!

Do energy drinks really boost your attention? In a recent study, it seems energy drink effects are mostly placebo.
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When you are in the need for a boost of energy, do you resort to energy drinks? Then you are not alone! In 2015, global sales of energy drinks hit $44.9 billion and the market is expected to be worth $62.7 in 2020 with significant growth throughout the world, according to Euromonitor International (1).

The intended cognitive booster

Energy drinks are regularly consumed as a cognitive booster to improve brain function and have therefore become popular with students during exams or with professionals facing long hours and tough deadlines. But do energy drinks really improve performance, and, if yes, why? These questions were raised by Liane Schmidt and colleagues (2017) at INSEAD in their paper titled “Red Bull Gives You Incentive Motivation: Understanding Placebo Effects of Energy Drinks on Human Cognitive Performance”.

Here, the researchers speculated that some of the effects of energy drinks on cognitive performance were driven by marketing-led expectations about their effects, rather than by the effects of their actual ingredients. In other words, whether the increase in cognitive performance was induced by a marketing placebo effect.

An applied neuroscience approach

Applied neuroscience can move us from just being amazed by these strange findings, to actually having a causal understanding of the process

Although previous studies had shown that unlabeled energy drinks improved some measures of cognitive and physical performance, these studies did not differentiate between the chemical effect and the mere expectation about the effects of consuming an energy drink. Based on these observations, the researchers hypothesized that the label/brand of the drink would increase incentive motivation and cognitive performance.

Participants performed better in the task when they believed that they had consumed an energy-drink, regardless of what they had actually consumed!

How the study was conducted

In the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups and given either a Redbull Silver Edition or a similar-tasting Sprite soda:

  1. A placebo group, drinking soda labeled as an energy drink.
  2. An energy drink group, drinking an energy drink labeled as an energy drink.
  3. A hidden energy drink group, drinking an energy drink labeled as a soda.
  4. A control group, drinking soda labeled as soda.

In the room where the drinks were administered, a poster explaining the benefits of energy drinks on mental performance was taped to the wall and the participants were explicitly asked to read it. After consuming the drink and reading the poster, participants were given a numerical Stroop task to sample cognitive performance and incentive motivation.

Some of the effects of energy drinks on cognitive performance were driven by marketing-led expectations.

It’s all about the belief

Interestingly, the researchers found that participants performed better in the task when they believed that they had consumed an energy-drink, regardless of what they had actually consumed!

In addition, the researchers also found that the expected consumption of energy drinks increased the effects of incentive motivation on cognitive performance. Their findings suggest that merely believing that you consume an energy drink increases your motivation to perform, which in turn improves your performance.

What it all means

This study contributes with novel insight into the motivational processes underpinning marketing placebo effects and extends the literature that shows that context indeed matters in the experience of consumers.

Because people cannot reliably self-report how context influences their unconscious evaluations and subsequent behaviors, researchers and marketers alike need to probe with other tools than traditional interviews or focus groups.

The bigger picture

Crucially, applied neuroscience offers a solution to understanding these key unconscious responses and their implications to behavior. Here, two main processes have been identified. As decision makers we have an expected utility of an outcome, and when seeing a product, or just even the brand or a packaging, we are triggered to have an expectation of what is to come. This expectation effect is related to engagement of deep nuclei of the brain, such as the emotional amygdala and reward-related structures such as the ventral striatum.

When we experience the pleasure of a food, drinks or other items, we typically engage higher order cortical systems such as the lower/orbital parts of the prefrontal cortex. Greater enjoyment is correlated with stronger engagement of this region.

Together, and although the researchers did not explicitly test for this, these findings suggest that the expectation of energy drink effects triggers activation of the ventral striatum, possibly also the amygdala, which is known to have direct modulatory effects on body states and performance. As such, this is a demonstration of how applied neuroscience can move us from just being amazed by these strange findings, to actually having a causal understanding of the process, something that eventually empowers and enables us in product design and brand building.

Greater enjoyment is correlated with stronger activity in the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Nucleus accumbens is related to reward anticipation. The image is taken from “Introduction to Neuromarketing & Consumer Neuroscience” by Dr. Thomas Ramsøy 2015

Further reading