A Florida School Seeks Better Test Scores Through Placebos

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Courtesy Sun Sentinel

The PowerBar handed out to students at the Hagen Road Elementary School in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Want a “special brain snack” to boost your test scores? Typically, performance enhancers would be frowned on by school authorities, but in one Florida elementary school, administrators are handing out “FCAT power bars” to improve students scores on the state’s dreaded standardized tests.

According to the Sun-Sentinel, the power bar is really just an apple-flavored cereal bar with the label “Warning: Improves Writing Power!” The bars are being distributed at a primary school near Boynton Beach on Florida’s East Coast ahead of the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, and parents have received handouts telling them to inform their children about how the snacks will help.

The Sun-Sentinel‘s Marc Freeman writes:

Administrators at Hagen Road Elementary want kids to think eating an “FCAT power bar” will guarantee great results on the exams — starting Tuesday — in the same way the “placebo effect” allows medical patients to swallow sugar pills as fake treatments to spark healing.

MORE: Placebos Work Even if You Know They’re Fake: But How?

It’s not so outlandish as it sounds. The placebo effect remains mysterious but real: for example, people given placebo and told that it is morphine experience stronger pain relief than those given the same pill labeled as aspirin. Red placebos are more effective as stimulants, while blue pills are more effective as sedatives. One study found that even when patients were only implicitly told they were getting placebo, they still did better than those who got no treatment. Placebos can also have side effects and, like real drugs, they can sometimes make conditions worse.

But could “power bars” actually improve test scores? Simply eating breakfast has been shown to help student performance, so they might work for children who skipped their morning meal. And since the placebo may improve confidence and reduce anxiety, it might also spur genuine improvements that way.

Let’s give the school a bit of credit. Rather than yielding to fears of being attacked as sending a “pro-drug” message, they’re packaging breakfast with a bit of subversive humor and respecting their students’ ability to recognize a silly warning. Now, if they give unlabeled and unheralded bars to a control group, they might have themselves a nice little experiment, which could teach these kids and the rest of us a bit more about the science of placebos.

MORE: New Research on the Antidepressant-vs.-Placebo Debate

[h/t: Steve Silberman]

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.