Do You REALLY Function Better with Caffeine?



Does caffeine actually impact the way we complete a task, or do we function just as well with placebo coffee? A new study could provide some answers. 

Let’s say you were to take three hundred people on their way to work in a big city. You then split that group of three hundred people into three groups of one hundred people and put each of those groups into separate rooms. The first group is instructed to “do nothing” for half an hour. The second group is given painkillers that you tell them are some sort of miracle pill that can cure a headache. You tell the third group the same thing that you tell the second group, but you’ll give them sugar pills instead. After the half hour, 20 people from the first group say their headache is gone. 90 people from the second group say their headache is gone, and 55 people from the third group say their headache is gone. The sugar pill actually has no effect on the patient’s body, but their belief that it will help them has gotten rid of a headache. This is an example of the placebo effect: a beneficial treatment that uses a placebo (a type of medicine that has no physiological effect on the body) which is based on the patient’s belief in that treatment.

Now instead of curing people’s headaches during rush hour, let’s look at the placebo effect that coffee has on our body. Many people drink coffee every morning to wake them up, and it seems to be common knowledge that this is due to the caffeine that’s in coffee. A recent study conducted by the American University in Washington D.C. was conducted to finally prove whether coffee enhances our performance. 60 volunteers participated, and all drink coffee regularly. Every participant was told that they were going to be drinking real coffee, but researchers actually gave half of them decaffeinated coffee, and the other half got coffee with 280 mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent of three cups of coffee. Half an hour later, the volunteers were given a difficult button-pressing task, where they had to remain concentrated and keep up the same level of effort. On top of that, the researchers told half of the participants who had the decaf coffee and half of those who had the caffeinated coffee that the drink would hinder their performance, and the other half were told that the coffee would enhance it. 

This graph shows the results of the study.

As you can see, those who were given 280mg of caffeine in their coffee and were told that the coffee would enhance their performance did the best on this study. Surprisingly, those who were given the decaf coffee and were told that their performance would be impaired by the coffee did better than those who were told the coffee would enhance their performance. However, none of the volunteers who were given decaf coffee noticed that it didn’t have caffeine in it.

Overall, those who were given caffeine in their coffee did end up performing better, but there are many controlled variables that could have been considered to possibly increase the accuracy of this test.