Looking for a little excitement this weekend? Perhaps you should try Lust, a new "six-time distilled, gluten-free" vodka that claims to increase a woman's sex drive — though it's not immediately clear how that would work. Sure, we know alcohol can cause some fun and friendly social effects, but there doesn't seem to be anything special about Lust's particular offering. The vodka doesn't contain any aphrodisiac, and there's certainly none of that "female Viagra" lurking in the mix. There's also nothing to suggest why it would work only on women. While the brand — and its marketing — has already been thoroughly mocked, it's actually not (quite) as silly as it sounds.
So, how can a bottle of vodka-and-not-much-else drive women wild? According to the press release, it's all in the name: Simply due to its name, and human nature's insatiable dependency on the power of suggestion, having a bottle of Lust-Vodka on your table naturally increases one's sexual desire, adding emotional elements of anticipation and seduction to the mix. While this is at least 90% silly ad-speak, the company is referencing real psychological concepts, and we're hearing a lot about one of them: the placebo effect. According to Adam Alter, PhD, author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, "a placebo is a fake treatment, like water or sugar pills, that improves a patient’s condition merely because he or she expects it to help."
A placebo is a fake treatment that improves a patient’s condition merely because he or she expects it to help.
Dr. Adam Alter
We see this time and again in clinical trials: One group of participants is given a pill containing actual treatment while the other is given a fake pill, but both groups are told they may be getting the real thing. As a result, we often see people in the placebo group improving, even though they didn't get the "active" treatment. And, one hurdle for medications trying to gain approval is demonstrating they can produce a greater improvement than that of a placebo. There are shades within the placebo effect, too. For instance, there will often be a bigger placebo effect when the treatment itself is more dramatic, like getting a shot instead of a pill. And, we see the opposite, the nocebo effect, when participants are told a fake treatment will produce ill effects then subsequently experience those effects — think not-fun stuff, like vomiting. In some situations, we see the placebo effect even when we're told we're taking a placebo. In fact, that's exactly the concept a group of scientists at Harvard hopes to use to help cancer patients dealing with fatigue following treatment. However, as Lust so helpfully points out, suggestion plays a big role. "Placebos work precisely because you expect them to have a particular effect," Dr. Alter explains. "There can’t be a placebo effect unless someone — or the text on a product label — suggests that it should have a certain effect on you."
Once you have an expectation, you’re ripe to experience the placebo effect.
Dr. Adam Alter
This is where our expectations come in: "Suggestion is only important if you don’t already have an expectation," says Dr. Alter. "Once you have an expectation — whether through suggestion or experience or otherwise — you’re ripe to experience the placebo effect." The effects of placebo, suggestion, and expectation can give us some truly helpful and noble things because, says Dr. Alter, "they all feed into the same basic process." On the other hand, they have also given us homeopathy — and, apparently, this witless vodka. Still, Alter says, "many aphrodisiacs work because they encourage you to lower your inhibitions...In the same way, a vodka that describes itself as an aphrodisiac might just have an aphrodisiac effect because people expect it to raise their libidos." Essentially, the vodka suggests you might feel a little lusty after having a drink, which gives you an expectation. ("Maybe it seems a little silly, but hey — it could work, right?" you might say to yourself). At that point, the placebo effect can easily take over, setting up an even stronger expectation for next time and fueling the whole cycle again. So, although this is clearly more marketing and psychology than chemistry, just reading this article has planted a seed of suggestion in your mind about how Lust vodka might live up to its name — even if you know better — and might make it actually happen. Sorry.