Most Supplements Don’t Work. But That’s Not the Worst Part. (Alex Hutchinson, Jan 16, 2024, Outside)

But it’s not just the opportunity cost: paradoxically, taking what seems like a shortcut to better performance can nudge you toward doing a worse job on the basics.

A 2011 study in Taiwan illustrates this. Researchers gave a group of volunteers an inert supplement, telling half of them that it was a multivitamin and the other half that it was a placebo. Both segments thought they were helping with consumer product research, providing feedback on the size, shape, and texture of the pill. Then they completed a series of bogus consumer tests while the researchers monitored their behavior. While testing a pedometer, for example, those who thought they’d taken a multivitamin didn’t walk as far as the placebo group; at lunch, they were more likely to overdo it at the buffet table than to select the healthy organic option. In a questionnaire, the vitamin group reported less desire to exercise and greater desire for “hedonic activities” like drinking and—strikingly—casual sex.

As improbable as these results seem, they fit within a larger body of research on a psychological phenomenon called licensing. We often pursue goals that are in conflict with one another, like having an active social life while still getting plenty of sleep. When we make progress toward one goal, we feel justified balancing things out in the opposite direction. Have an afternoon nap and you might think it’s OK to stay out that night for one more drink. When it comes to supplements, the calculus is almost always lopsided. We dramatically overestimate the benefit, and subsequent licensing leaves us worse off than we started.