The golden arse beam method.

July 9th, 2011 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, irrationality research, placebo | 15 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 9 July 2011

Since I was a teenager, whenever I have a pivotal life event coming – an exam, or an interview – I perform a ritual. I sit cross-legged on the floor, and I imagine an enormous golden beam of energy coming out of my arse.

I picture this anal beam passing through each layer beneath me, through the kitchen of the flat below, through the shop, and its basement, past gas pipes and sewers and then deep into the earth, where it spreads out into a glorious branching root network sucking power from the earth. I picture this energy surging through me, I visualise the outcome I want, in enormous detail, and I will it to happen, for about five minutes.

Surprisingly enough, this nonsense is broadly supported by data from randomised controlled trials.

One example was published last month. Around 200 students were randomly assigned to four groups, each with activities supposed to increase their fruit intake. The control group just repeated their goal to themselves (“eat more fruit”). One group concentrated on elaborate mental images of themselves enjoying fruit. Another group repeated verbal plans for specific situations (“when I see fruit, I will … “). The last group pictured lavish plans of encountering fruit, picking it up, touching it, eating it.

Among participants eating lots of fruit already, four portions a day, there wasn’t much change. Among people eating less fruit to begin with, one-and-a-half portions a day, everyone increased their intake, but the ones performing the most elaborate mental imagery did so much more (their intake doubled).

It’s not a perfect study – I don’t like subgroup analyses for a start, and it only followed up participants for seven days – but it’s not alone. An earlier study from 2009 randomly assigned 100 students either to a control group, or to a couple of forms of imagery, picturing themselves choosing a healthy snack over an unhealthy one. The imagery group had more healthy snacks.

Meanwhile, a meta-analysis from 2006 collectively analyses the results of 94 studies and finds that “implementation intentions” (“if I am in situation X, I will do Y”) had a positive effect overall on goal achievement.

So there’s probably something there, and this research tells us some interesting things about science. Firstly, I think this kind of research is useful. Rupert Sheldrake is the researcher who claims dogs can sense their owner is coming home before they arrive. I disagree with him on a lot, but he has one great idea: that each year, a proportion of the research budget – a hundredth, a thousandth – should be spent on whatever the public vote for. Most of it would go on MMR and homeopathy, of course, but some of it might go on testing, revising and improving stuff that improves people’s everyday lives.

Secondly, it shows us that even if you’re wrong about how something works, it might still work. I was sold the golden bum beam stuff with a lot of nonsense about quantum hippy energy, but I’ve always thought of it as a perfectly sensible way to combat distractibility. Effective things can come from silly places.

And so, lastly, I’m cornered into saying something nice about a government. The Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team annoyed me. It looked like they were going to overextrapolate from behavioural economics research to make lavish, overstated, untested claims.

In fact, they’ve just published their report on reducing energy use, and after setting out their ideas (they reckon, for example, that giving people detailed feedback and suggestions on energy use will reduce it overall) announced they’re going to test at least some of their ideas, in randomised controlled trials, before implementing them, to find out if they work. It’s odd, but the first good trials in UK politics for many years may be about to come from the wackiest and most vogueish corner of government.

[Sorry, I forgot to post this in July, when I was v busy!]

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15 Responses

  1. Regression To Norm said,

    February 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    A posting from Ben!
    I thought you had forgotten about us here.

  2. Filias Cupio said,

    February 14, 2012 at 4:32 am

    Spotted on the BBC website:
    “Physicists have come up with an equation that predicts the shape of a ponytail.”

    I immediately thought it would be like the papers you’ve criticized – formula for the sexiest walk, or for most depressing day of the year – a PR stunt. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was real research in a high quality journal with no company name attached anywhere.

  3. bladesman said,

    February 14, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Impossible for a post entitled “the golden arse beam method” to be anything other than entertaining! You could probably extend this to other nonsense such as Brain Gym too. Not sure I agree on the merit of a public vote for research though. It’s hard enough to have science taken seriously with some of the asinine studies already out there.

  4. rosross said,

    February 16, 2012 at 5:31 am

    I have just read a 2010 post on homeopathy and I am going to post a response here because you might actually read it. Having also found you for the first time and taken the time to read some of your blogs – mostly raging rants against traditional healing methodologies – I can only say you seem to have a problem.
    There is a saying:’That which we condemn in others is that which we deny in ourselves,’ and ‘ methinks you protest too much.’
    This crusade of yours is irrational and, from the tone and substance of many of your posts, poorly researched and barely reasoned. However, here is what I wrote in response to your rant on homeopathy:
    The biggest problem with this article is that it makes Ben Goldacre look bad – both as a doctor and a journalist.
    Your explanation of the placebo effect is facile and I am astonished you would resort to such manipulation to simply seek to make a point.
    You also have clearly no real idea of how homeopathy works. To suggest that homeopaths like prescribing pills more than doctors is simply laughable. Most visits to the doctor take less than 20 minutes and in most cases people walk away with a prescription which will have them taking pills for weeks or months and which in many cases are ultimately re-prescribed so they can be taking pills for years.
    An initial homeopathic appointment takes from 1.5 to 2 hours and subsequent appointments take from 1 to 1.5 hours. A pill is usually given but often one pill and that is the only one until the patient returns in one, two or three months.
    It is bad science and bad journalism and bad medicine to take the extremes of a healing methodology as you have done here and to seek to discredit the entire methodology – one older than modern medicine actually. If we were to take the medical quacks which allopathy has produced in its history and continues to produce and to take into account the hundreds of thousands who die around the world every year and the hundreds of thousands who are hospitalised through iatrogenic (doctor-induced) causes, often from the prescribed pharmaceuticals, then your medicine would look even worse than the healing methodologies you seek to discredit.
    You seem an intelligent young man Ben. Your obsessive fear and hatred of homeopathy is irrational. There must be a reason. I would only ask if you have ever actually studied it or taken the time to see a qualified homeopath and tried it for yourself. Homeopathy is actually very effective with obsessions and fears.
    In the meantime I am not sure how much time you have to work as a doctor given the effort and passion you put into attempting to discredit a healing methodology which is centuries old, which harms none and which is actually increasing in use around the world but clearly your demands as a doctor impact your ability to properly research and write as a journalist.
    The indications are that you are performing poorly on all fronts – perhaps you are spreading yourself too thin. Either commit to journalism and become a better researcher and writer or commit to medicine and take the time to explore traditional healing methodologies like homeopathy and acupuncture, as many qualified doctors do, and make a difference.
    Pouring out these diatribes only make you look foolish.

  5. 88HUX88 said,

    February 20, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Recently I read Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed describes exactly that in one chapter.

  6. AnonymousPlease said,

    February 21, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    The Taylor & Francis (2011) paper on intention to eat fruit was interesting. However, the partial eta-squared values for actual consumption of fruit are less than 0.10. Partial eta-squared is the proportion of variation in the data that is due to the experimental manipulation (in this case, the various ways of thinking about or imaging more fruit). Partial eta-squared can range from 0 (no effect whatsoever) to 1 (all variation due to the experimental manipulation). In this case the values are <0.10, so less than 10% of the variability in fruit consumption is due to the manipulation even in the group showing the largest impact (low fruit eaters). Obviously this is detectable, but it's not a huge effect, and the modest impact in this study is fairly typical in the field.

    My point in raising this is that health psychologists seem to be wedded to the point of view that if one gives people enough information, their willpower will lead them to make healthy, rational lifestyle choices. Frankly I think this is about as naive as the assumption in economics that everybody always makes optimal economic decisions (as if). I believe a great deal of our behaviour is based on unconscious habits, but we just don't like to admit it.

  7. benArrayx said,

    February 21, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    The great thing about quantum hippy energy is that you don’t have to believe in it for it to work. You just have to practice the method.

  8. stinkychemist said,

    February 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Actually, I can save the Cabinet Insights Team a lot of time and money. Given that “they reckon, for example, that giving people detailed feedback and suggestions on energy use will reduce it overall”, one wonders whose energy they will choose to feed back. Knowing that Sheffield Wednesday squanders thousands of pounds every winter weekend on their under-pitch heating will not make me economise in the slightest.

    If they mean to feed back to me the usage of energy in my house, that is achieved every month by British Gas, who calculate their bills in proportion to my consumption. The knowledge, from their website, that I use, and therefore spend more on, my gas than similar homes makes no difference to me, since I cannot afford to replace my ageing back-boiler.

    The allied news (usually from the Energy Saving Trust, Carbon Trust or their ilk) that I could save (up to!) £300 per year by replacing said boiler makes no difference either, since that makes the payback time for a £3600 replacement to be longer than the expected working lifetime of a modern boiler.

    My current boiler has one moving part, which hasn’t gone wrong in nearly 30 years. Since I am a scientist, I await evidence that a modern boiler could manage anything like this, at which point, I shall buy it.

    We currently feed back grades and progress to our school pupils, but the only way to raise grades has been to reduce expectations. Clearly there must be a parallel message in terms of energy. Just re-grade ALL gas appliances as “A” for economy and the country will be more efficient at a stroke.

  9. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 4, 2012 at 1:08 am

    Minister announces a “Green Deal” with “end to subsidy”.

    It will be hated by “vested interests”, i.e. people who use energy or make it. This might not include the homeless, but then [The Big Issue] doesn’t print itself.

    Randomsed controlled trials, my golden arse beam.

    I’ve been reading several Charlie Brooker articles recently, you?

  10. Williamdice said,

    March 27, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Hi, slightly off topic (but placebo related): A rheumatologist complaining about how using the wrong placebo can be a problem reminded me of this site (and I couldn’t find a better place to post it):

  11. Matthew Leitch said,

    March 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm


    I don’t think the study of implementation intentions has anything to do with the golden arse beam method. Implementation intentions are just very specific intentions to do particular things in particular situations. They work (and this has been shown in lots of studies) in part because people remember to do the intended action more often if they have formed a very clear and specific intention to do so in a very clear and specific situation.

    The new wrinkle with this study is that imagining more details of the intended situation and action – mentally rehearsing the intention if you like – seems to make the intention work better.

    I don’t think this particular study is placebo psychology at all, though there is a lot of it about!

  12. drkvogel said,

    April 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Would be interesting to know where you got this method from as a teenager. It sounds a lot like yoga, or tai chi where you imagine yourself ‘suspended from a golden thread’. Probably if nothing else, it promotes good posture, stillness, concentration and ‘mindfulness’ – ie. being aware of the turmoil in your head but being detached from it by concentrating on something simple and still. This is of course basically meditation which has long been known to have many benefits. Whether there’s any ‘quantum hippy energy’ involved… well I would love to think there was such a thing, but actually believing that would be using the same logic as a Catholic I met recently, who rather touchingly said he believed because “It makes me feel secure”…

  13. pieterb said,

    April 16, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    I have been reading the master key that explains this universal energy that governs all. It like universal law, like gravity but only the strongest law and it can be harvest through mental training, but here is the kicker U have to believe that such power exist for you to see results. Don’t believe and you will stay in the dark trying to find prove that it exists.

  14. oolon said,

    June 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Hehe really enjoyed rossross’s irrelevant comment at number 4. ‘You also have clearly no real idea of how homeopathy works’

    Ben and all the homeopaths in the world have something in common!

  15. joey89924 said,

    November 21, 2012 at 10:38 am

    This is of course basically meditation which has long been known to have many benefits. Whether there’s any ‘quantum hippy energy’ involved.