Emilia Whitmer

Staff writer

National media coverage of a Colorado College alumna’s study on “placebo sleep” has been spreading at a rapid pace.

Print media, online news sites, and local television newscasts have been running stories on the results of a study conducted by Christina Draganich ’12 that evidences placebo sleep having a significant impact on cognitive functioning.

Although Draganich and Kristi Erdal, Professor of Psychology at Colorado College and faculty advisor also credited for the research, are grateful for the good press, they cannot help but notice the discrepancy between the actual study and the reports released by certain media outlets.

“Some are hard to read because they distort it a bit,” Erdal said.

This study, as it turns out, began as Draganich’s neuroscience senior thesis, originally conducted on 50 Colorado College students.

After the Journal of Experimental Psychology accepted her initial thesis, Draganich proceeded to recreate, modify slightly, and expand the study to include 150 students, as a part of the peer review process.

The final results were published Jan. 13 of this year.

The study began with participants rating how well they thought they slept the previous night.  The students were then attached to a machine that they believed tested the actual quality of their sleep the previous night, although it did not.

Draganich randomly selected students and told them they received an above average amount of sleep while telling the rest they received a below average amount of sleep. Finally, she gave all of them a test to measure their cognitive functions.

The results showed significantly higher scores from participants who were told they had adequate sleep and lower scores for the ones told they did not have adequate sleep.

Draganich and Erdal compared this to how the participants thought they slept to see which was a better indicator of performance.

“How we told them they slept trumped everything,” Erdal said.

Media outlets picked up the story quickly, with reports appearing within 24 hours of the abstract being published online, some proving to be misleading or incomplete representations of the study.

“This provides an interesting commentary on how the media distorts research findings,” Draganich said. “Overall, I found that the bloggers and print media did a much better job than the reporters, who tended to either distort the findings or subjectivize them with their own opinions.”

Erdal noticed that many reports were too concerned with representing the study as having immediate applicability, which is not easy to discern from this particular experiment.

“You can’t take this data and then automatically change your cognitive functioning from your sleep,” said Erdal, explaining that the placebo effect is more reliant on an authority figure than the media has portrayed. “It won’t work unless they have a doctor in their home telling them they got a good night sleep.”

The news outlets that interviewed Draganich and Erdal repeatedly asked about implications of this study and how their findings would impact their readers.

This is also hard to predict, Erdal points out, because the experiment was a small test in a controlled setting.  They cannot apply this to the general public until more research occurs.

“This was an experiment done in a lab, with undergraduate students, a non-representative sample, and everything was controlled,” said Erdal. “It was the first step in this area. It is absolutely by no means the last step.”

Although their study may be just the beginning, Draganich hopes that this media attention will help spread the word that a person’s mindset can in fact impact their health.

Both Erdal and Draganich also stressed that despite these disagreements with the media, this national attention can only be beneficial for Colorado College.

“I hope that the publication serves to promote Colorado College, evidencing the impressive resources that the school offers and highlighting the incredible professors,” Draganich said.

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