Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1980, Vol. 89, No.


The Role of Attributions of Responsibility in the Facilitation of Unusual Experiential States During Alpha Training: An Analysis of the Biofeedback Placebo Effect
William B. Plotkin
State University of New York at Albany Given that altered experiential states do occur during electroencephalographic (EEG) alpha biofeedback training but that actual alpha enhancement does not, interest has turned to the role of various cognitive and contextual factors that may be facilitating the occurrence of such experiences. Following an attribution analysis of the biofeedback placebo effect, the present article describes an investigation of the differential effects (on the intensity of experiential changes) of five different attributions of responsibility for these changes. It was arranged that our research participants would attribute these changes (if any) to either (a) biofeedback training, (b) an analagous external placebo (a "brain wave stimulator"), (c) a "concentration exercise" (an internal attribution), (d) a combination of the latter two, or (e) simply to their own unaided efforts. Fifty randomly assigned college students (n = 10) spent 30 min. engaged in one of the above treatments. In addition, in order to control for any specific physiological effects of biofeedback training (Group 1), a sixth group (n = 10) was given noncontingent biofeedback training. All participants read the same description of the to-be-induced "alpha experience." The results demonstrated that persons who believed that they were engaged in biofeedback training (irrespective of whether it was, in fact, contingent feedback), (a) were more likely to report alpha experiences and (b) reported more intense experiences than persons in the other four groups, among which there were no differences. Implications for our understanding of the placebo features of biofeedback training are discussed.

During electroencephalographic (EEG) alpha biofeedback training, the trainees are presented with immediate moment-tomoment information feedback of the strength or density of their EEG alpha rhythm, which provides them with the opportunity, in principle, to learn to increase, maintain, or decrease the strength of this brain rhythm, Of particular interest is the observation by several researchers (Brown, 1970; Hardt & Kamiya, 1976; Hart, 1968; Kamiya, 1968, 1969; Nowlis & Kamiya, 1970) that persons
The author wishes to express his appreciation for the technical and administrative support of Bonnie Brown, Valerie Melburg, Kathy Rice, Louise Tornatore, Evan Graber Brian Cormier, Tom Harris, Janet

often report entering a quasi-meditational state of consciousness during alpha enhancement training. This state of consciousness, often called the "alpha experience," is usually identified as a pleasant, relaxed, and serene state, characterized by a loss of body and time awareness, an absence or diminution of thought, and "egolessness" (Brown, 1970; Hart, 1968; Kamiya, 1968, 1969; Nideffer, 1973; Nowlis & Kamiya, 1970; Plotkin, 1977, Plotkin & Cohen, 1976; Walsh, 1974). Initially, researchers thought that the
|Pha experience was intrinsically and directly associated with enhanced alpha levels and that the alpha experience was, in fact; caused by eimanced alpha. Howa

e Reaquestsn for reprint?should be sent to William B. ever' this very exciting notion has been Plotkin, who is now at Klamath Mental Health Center, thoroughly challenged by more recent work. 3314 Vandenberg Road, Klamath Falls, Oregon 97601. For instance, although it is clear that the

Copyright 1980 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 002I-843X/80/8901-0067$00.7S




alpha experience can be reliably generated during appropriately designed alpha training (Plotkin, 1977, 1979), many researchers have found that the occurrence of these experiences is largely unrelated to the strength or density of the concomitant alpha activity (Beatty, 1972; Lynch, Paskewitz, & Orne, 1974; Plotkin, 1976a, 1976b, 1977, 1978; Plotkin, Mazer, & Loewy, 1976; Sacks, Fenwick, Marks, Fenton, & Hebden, 1972). Moreover, recent reviews of the literature (Johnson, 1977; Paskewitz, 1977; Plotkin, 1978) indicate that there are absolutely no convincing demonstrations that anyone has ever seen or produced actual alpha enhancement significantly above an optimal eyesclosed baseline level. The inescapable conclusion is that alpha biofeedback training per se is neither necessary for—nor especially facilitative of—the alpha experience. Given these extraordinary facts, interest has turned to the role of various behavioral, cognitive, and social factors that may be facilitating the occurrence of such experiences during alpha training. Chief among the factors that have been demonstrated to be active are (a) the suggestion of or expectation of an unusual experience (DeGood, Elkin, Lessin, & Valle, 1977; Plotkin, 1977; Walsh, 1974), (b) the experience of success at the purportedly relevant feedback task (Plotkin, 1977), and (c) the sensory deprivation inherent in the biofeedback setting (Plotkin, 1978). Plotkin (1979) discusses several other factors, including individualdifference characteristics, that also contribute to our understanding of the occurrence of these unusual experiences. In essence, it has been demonstrated that many persons who believe themselves to be engaging in biofeedback training reputed to result in the occurrence of the alpha experience, and who are concurrently placed in a sensory-limiting environment for 15 min. to an hour, will report, at the end of that time, the occurrence of just such an altered state of consciousness if they perceived themselves as having succeeded at the feedback task. Furthermore, it makes little difference how well they actually do at the task: Most persons who report alpha experiences never produce as much alpha strength or density

during the training session as they did just prior to the session (during the baseline trials). Nevertheless, all alpha researchers who have paid attention to the above variables have learned that there is simply no doubt that many—if not most—of their trainees have experienced highly unusual, meaningful, and occasionally profound alterations in consciousness during this training. There is no basis for a categorical doubt about the phenomenological authenticity of these experiences, especially when one considers the eagerness of many of these trainees to repeat the experience, to learn all they can about it, and to spend considerable sums of money to purchase the equipment that is seen as necessary for the generation of the experience (Lawrence, 1972). Attributions of Responsibility Given the considerable interest stimulated by the alpha experience on the part of trainees and mental health researchers alike, we decided to look a little deeper into the nature of the biofeedback context in which these experiences are generated. In particular, we became interested in exploring the role of the research participants' attributions of responsibility for the occurrence of the alpha experience. Although we know that alpha training per se is of little importance in the generation of the experiential changes, it may nevertheless be the case that the alpha experience is more likely to occur when the research participant can attribute the cause of the experience to alpha training or another biofeedback procedure that can generate equally strong appraisals of credibility. For instance, would we find—or expect to find—equally profound changes in consciousness if we simply placed a person in a dark room for an hour and told him or her to expect, or to produce, certain experiential changes? What is it about the fact that alpha trainees have this specific attribution available for explaining to themselves the occurrence of these unusual experiences (namely, that they are the duly rewarded outcome of successful alpha training) that might enhance the likelihood of such experiences occurring in the first place?



The Placebo Effect in Biofeedback Training An initial answer would be that alpha training serves essentially the same role as an inactive drug placebo: Just as there are many persons who will experience a suggested psychological effect after ingesting a purportedly psychoactive drug that is in fact only a sugar pill, there are many biofeedback trainees who will experience a suggested psychological effect during purportedly psychoactive biofeedback training that in fact has no significant physiological effect. (See Peek, 1977, and Plotkin, Note 1, for an analysis of the theory and concept of placebo.) Strong support for this position is found in a recent study (Plotkin, 1977) that demonstrated that not only the alpha experience but also an altered experiential state very dissimilar to the alpha experience can be reliably generated in the alpha feedback setting, given the appropriate expectancy manipulation, regardless of obtained alpha levels. However, the expectancy effect that is realizable in the biofeedback setting may be more powerful, or may at least have more active dimensions, than the typical drug placebo. There is one particular difference between a biofeedback "treatment" and a drug placebo that concerns what is perhaps the most unique contribution of the entire biofeedback approach to therapeutic intervention, namely, the opportunity for the client, patient, or research participant to become an active, responsible, and competent agent in the change, control, or therapeutic process (Stroebel & Glueck, 1973). Whereas recipients of the drug placebo are led to attribute the physiological, behavioral, or psychological transformation entirely to the drug (and to thereby reduce their own sense of responsibility and self-control), biofeedback trainees (whether or not the training has a significant physiological effect) will attribute a desirable outcome at least partially to themselves, which will enhance their sense of responsibility, competence, and self-control. In addition, there is, of course, a much greater likelihood of the individual eventually achieving complete self-control (without the aid of either drugs

or biofeedback) when he or she is starting from a point of some perceived control and moving to one of more control than when he or she is attempting to go from no control to some control (Davison & Valins, 1969). Unlike placebo-treated persons, biofeedback trainees have been prepared to see themselves as at least eligible for selfcontrol of their problems, behaviors, and/or experiences. In short, the biofeedback approach takes advantage of a combination of internal (self) and external attributions for the suggested effect. There are several reasons why a biofeedback intervention may lead to a more powerful effect than an analogous externalplacebo approach. First is the fact that the experience of success at the feedback task may directly contribute to the outcome, especially when the major effect is an experiential or psychological change, as in the present case of alpha training. (With an external placebo, persons may experience relief and/or they may be very impressed and delighted by modern psychopharmacology, but they have no grounds for experiencing ^.personal success.) The self-control of an "involuntary" bodily process, especially one as mysterious and vital as brain wave activity, may be justifiable grounds for feelings of unusual self-mastery and the accompanying positive affect. Furthermore, in the case of biofeedback, there is nothing ambiguous about the occurrence of success: There is an objective measure of progress in the form of a feedback meter, tone, or other quantified index of control. Thus, the clinician or experimenter who employs biofeedback as a placebo intervention can arrange for his or her trainee to receive an indisputable feedback of "progress," which can serve as a very compelling counteragent to a trainee's lack of self-confidence, and, hence, as a powerful mobilizer of the trainee's motivations and skills. The second advantage that the biofeedback intervention has over the external placebo is as follows: Since biofeedback trainees see themselves as active agents, they are motivated to exert their own efforts toward producing the effect, an approach that may be expected to be more successful



than that of placebo-treated persons who usually have no reason to actively "help along" the "drug" (Valins & Nisbett, 1972). Individuals would be expected to become more involved in—and thereby more influenced by—a procedure whose effects they can see themselves as having facilitated than by a procedure ostensibly produced solely by an external agent. Thus, Valins and Nisbett recommend that the individual treated with a drug or placebo intervention be advised that the drug is not so strong and that he or she must "help it along" by the appropriate self-control behaviors. When these procedures are used, persons' self-doubts (as to whether they can contribute to the production of the effect) are circumvented and their motivation and involvement are maintained. The biofeedback-placebo goes even one step further in that the trainee's immediate task—controlling the feedback signal—is conceptually distinct from the control of the target process or state (e.g., the blood pressure, muscle group, or state of consciousness) and thus less likely to evoke the trainees' doubts concerning their competence. We would expect that alpha training would also be more effective than a procedure in which only internal attributions are available, since most persons would probably not see themselves as able to induce such experiential states on their own without special training (if they did, they would have done so already!). Persons who start out on a task that they believe to be impossible or doomed to failure are obviously less likely to succeed than those who think they have a good chance or those who do not even question their chances (Peek, 1977). There is yet an additional reason why alpha training, despite its lack of a significant physiological effect, may be more potent in producing the alpha experience than other approaches. This simply has to do with the credibility and reputation for effectiveness that many persons (including researchers) attribute to biofeedback training. That is, for a variety of reasons, an "alpha training" context may simply generate stronger expectancies than other induction procedures. To summarize, the biofeedback interven-

tion has at least the following four possible advantages over the traditional externalplacebo intervention: (a) the experience of personal success, (b) an "objective" index of progress, (c) the subject's active cooperation, and (d) a greater credibility and/or attributed power. In order to make some initial empirical observations on the relative efficacy of a biofeedback versus external-placebo induction, and in order to shed some light on the other attribution issues discussed above, the following experiment was conducted, in which a "biofeedback" induction of the alpha experience was compared with an external-placebo induction, two forms of internal attribution inductions, and a nonbiofeedback combination of internal and external attributions. In addition, in order to control for any specific physiological effects of biofeedback, a noncontingent as well as contingent feedback group was run. All groups were led to expect the same experience, and were run under identical or nearly identical experimental conditions. Context Redefinition It is perhaps worth emphasizing that the primary purpose of the present study was the investigation of different contexts (Sarbin, 1977) through a procedure of context redefinition, or what Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) have called "refraining":
To reframe . . . means to change the conceptual and/ or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the "facts" of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby change its entire meaning. . . . What turns out to be changed as a result of reframing is the meaning attributed to the situation, and therefore its consequences, but not its concrete facts, (p. 95)

In the present study, we systematically explored and compared the potency of various heuristic and theoretically interesting ways of "reframing" the alpha training situation for the research participant. It should be noted that such a methodology is not best understood on the simple model of manipulating antecedent events and recording consequent effects. By systematically varying the context of the indue-



tion procedures, we are influencing the research participants' understanding of these procedures, the meaning that they attribute to these procedures. This understanding is the cognitive (conceptual) or psychological schema in terms of which the participants interpret all of the elements of the procedure and on the basis of which they choose their actions and construct their experiences. These schemata are not antecedent events that cause specific behaviors or experiences. They are not events or processes of any kind. Rather, they are attributes of theperson (in this case, his or her knowledge or belief; e.g., Harre & Secord, 1973; Ossorio, 1964, 1969) that that person uses as a basis for action throughout the experimental session. In order to demonstrate the influence of such context redefinition, or reframing, independent of the causal effects of the experimental circumstances, we endeavored to keep all critical elements of the procedures constant across the six experimental groups. Method Research Participants
The research participants (RPs) were 60 undergraduates from the department of psychology's subject pool who volunteered for a study on "altered states of consciousness and brain wave activity."

For all RPs, the EEC was recorded by electrodes attached to the Oz (midline occipital) and right mastoid locations, with the forehead as ground. The feedback apparatus, manufactured by Bio-Feedback Systems, Inc., recorded integrated alpha amplitude and has been described in greater detail in Plotkin, Mazer, and Loewy (1976). The RPs in the contingent-feedback group received an intensity-modulated feedback tone via a headphone set. All other RPs heard a tape recording of the tonal feedback of an RP who received contingent feedback. A Lafayette strip-chart recorder was employed to monitor the unflltered EEG for artifacts. The RPs sat in an upright easy chair placed approximately in the middle of a 10 x 6 ft. (3.048 x 1.764 m) sound-attenuated and carpeted room.

During electrode attachment, all RPs read the same set of orienting instructions, which informed them that during the subsequent session they would have the opportunity to experience an altered state of

consciousness called the "lambda experience" (LE) and that we were interested in determining the relationship between the LE and brain wave activity (hence, the electrodes). They then read an elaborate description of the LE, which was described in the same way as the traditional alpha experience: a pleasant, relaxed, and serene state, characterized by a loss of body and time awareness, an absence or diminution of thought, and egolessness. (These orienting instructions did not identify the means by which the LE would be induced.) Then five 60-sec alpha-strength baseline trials were recorded with eyes closed in the unilluminated experimental chamber. During the baseline trials, RPs were randomly assigned to one of six groups. After these trials, the RPs were given a special set of instructions to read depending on which of the following inductions they were assigned: Contingent EEG-alpha biofeedback training <ConFb). These RPs were instructed to try to increase the volume of the feedback tone; they were told that successful performance would enhance the strength of their lambda brain wave activity and thereby result in the LE. Every 2 min. during feedback, these RPs were read (over an intercom) a feedback score that was proportional to average alpha strength during the last trial; in particular, the feedback scores were each RP's actual trial scores plus an additional (and accumulating) 2% of that RP's baseline score. The purpose of the accumulating 2% was to help ensure that these RPs experienced some success at the feedback task. The feedback scores heard by these RPs ranged from an average of 469 on Trial 1,482 on Trial 5, and 563 on Trial 10 to 648 on Trial 15. Moreover, it turned out that all RPs in this group heard feedback scores that indicated at least a moderate degree of success during the session. Noncontingent biofeedback (NC-Fb). These RPs received instructions identical to the Con-Fb group, but the "feedback" tone they heard was in fact a tape recording of a successful trainee's feedback. The 2-min. feedback scores were based on the tape-recorded tone and ranged from 467 on Trial 1, 684 on Trial 5, and 768 on Trial 10 to 848 on Trial 15, which indicates a substantial "alpha-enhancement" success. Concentration exercise (CE). This was an internalattribution-only condition. These RPs were told that they would hear a tape-recorded tone (which was the same recording that the NC-Fb group heard) and that their task was to use the tone as a concentration object and to "let the perception of the tone fill your entire mind"; successful concentration, they were told, would result in the LE. Brainwave stimulation (BWS). This was the external-attribution-only condition (i.e., the drugplacebo analogue). These RPs were told that the LE would be directly induced by a combination of electrical brain stimulation (via the recording electrodes) and a "computer-programmed" auditory stimulation (the same tape-recorded tone as above); they were informed that they need only sit passively and experience the effects. A combination of the CE and BWS conditions (CE+BWS), This condition combined internal and


WILLIAM B. PLOTKIN Section D. This final section had the goal of determining how valuable or meaningful the RP's experience was to him/her. This was done by asking for a response to five questions such as, "Was the experience of sufficiently high quality that it is the sort of experience that you would actively seek out?" or "What did you learn about yourself from your participation in this project?" Overall response to this section was given a score from 0 (experience of little value) to 5 (highest value).

external attributions in a nonbiofeedback context. These RPs were told that they were receiving direct brain wave stimulation via the electrodes, but that they must assist it by concentrating on the tone. Self-Induction (SI). This was another internalattribution-only condition, but unlike the participants in the CE condition, these RPs were given no induction strategy; rather, these RPs were asked to selfinduce the LE employing any method they wished. They were also briefly recounted the actual history of alpha training research, including the fact that there is no evidence that alpha training per se has any effect on experience and that previous trainees were directly self-inducing the alpha experience. The RPs in this group were told that they were free to attend to or ignore the noncontingent tone as they wished. After reading the specific group instructions, RPs spent 30 min. in the corresponding conditions, during which time eyes were kept closed in the unilluminated room. Although experimenters were not experimentally blind, there was virtually no contact between the experimenter and the RPs following group assignment. Furthermore, instructions were read by the RPs, and experiential reports were obtained by written questionnaire (discussed below).

Results Alpha Amplitudes Analyses of alpha amplitudes indicated that although no groups generated alpha levels on any trials as high as presession baselines, the Con-Fb group produced significantly higher levels than the other five groups on seven of the last nine 2-min. trials. These results and their implications are discussed in detail in a separate paper (Plotkin, Note 2). However, it is important to note here that this finding has little or no relevance to the interpretation of the experiential results discussed below (as will be demonstrated). Experiential Reports

Postexperimental Questionnaire
The postexperimental questionnaire began with a written demand for honesty, in which it was emphasized that there were no right or wrong answers. Following this were four separate sections. Section A. This section included the following l-to-9scale questions:

In general, the results indicated that although there were large individual differences (reflected here in error variances), the two biofeedback groups reported "lambda experiences" of significantly greater intensities than the other four groups. Part A. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) (six levels) was performed on each of the questions in this section. The ANOVA for Question 1 ("Did you experience the LE during this session?") produced a significant effect, F(5, 54) = 2.40, M5e = 3.41, p Section B. In this section, RPs were asked to de- < .05. The means and standard deviations scribe their experiences in their own words. Section C. This part consisted of 30 l-to-9 scales for this and the following analyses are shown corresponding to 30 different experiential dimensions, in Table 1. A planned comparison between on which the RPs appraised their experience during the two biofeedback groups, on the one the session when they were "experiencing the greatest hand, and the other four groups, on the other, change in consciousness." These 30 items were was also significant, F(l, 54) = 13.81, p divided into three metascales or factors based on content: The Alpha Experience Scale (10 items) included < .001. (The basis of this planned comsuch cognitive items as amount of thought, degree of parison is the a priori hypothesis that the mental control, speed of thought, awareness of self, biofeedback attribution would be associated and clarity of thought; the General Intensity Scale with the most profound changes in reported (7 items) included profundity, pleasantness, and unusualness; the Sensory Deprivation Scale (8 items) experience.) Given that a 7 on this question included degree of body awareness, physical relaxa- corresponds to "definitely did not have a tion, awareness of surroundings, and awareness of time. LE" and a 9 corresponds to "definitively
1. Did you experience the LE during this session? (from "definitely not" to "yes, very definitely"); 2. How intense was your experience of the LE? (from "didn't have it at all" to "extremely intense"); 3. How would you rate the general effectiveness (in producing altered states of consciousness) of the type of induction procedure employed in this session? (from "entirely ineffective" to "superior"); this item assesses the credibility of the different conditions; 4. How successful did you feel at (controlling the tone?) (concentrating on the tone?) (self-inducing the LE?) (This question did not apply to the BWS group.)



did," this result shows that the biofeed- in experiential outcomes. (The a priori basis back attribution was significantly more of the latter comparison was the possibility associated with changes in consciousness that the lack of contingency in the NC-Fb than the other four contexts. group would be recognized and therefore A similar ANOVA on Question 2 ("How lead to reduced credibility.) intense was your experience of the lambda Question 4, on the degree of experienced state?") also yielded a significant effect, success at the various tasks, did not proF(5, 54) = 2.97, MSe = 3.39, p < .05. The duce an overall main effect on its ANOVA. biofeedback versus other planned compari- In addition, significance was not reached on son was again significant, F(l, 54) = 11.28, the planned comparison of the biofeedback p < .005, demonstrating that the persons groups versus the other three, nor of the in the biofeedback conditions reported the Con-Fb group versus the NC-Fb group. Part B. This section, containing the most intense experiential alterations. The ANOVA for Question 3, concerning written reports of the RPs' experiences, the rated effectiveness of the different types was not formally analyzed. The major of induction procedures, surprisingly did purposes of this section were (a) to require not produce a significant effect. Planned RPs to carefully review and articulate the comparisons of the biofeedback groups nature of their experiences in their own versus the other four, and of the Con-Fb group terms before going on to Part C, in which versus the NC-Fb group, also failed to reach they rated their experiences on the dimensignificance, indicating the absence of large sions provided by the experimenter; (b) to differences in credibility between the provide possible material for future studies different conditions, despite the differences or analyses; and (c) to substantiate the
Table 1 Group Means and Standard Deviations on Experimental Questionnaire Items Group Part Question M SD Question M SD Question M SD Question M SD 1 (lambda experience)
6.8 1.7 6.8 1.1 5.7 1.9 5.4 1.7 3.8 2.2 5.3 2.2 4.2 1.9 4.9 2.1 4.1 1.6 5.1 2.4 3.7 2.1 5.0 2.3 — — 5.3 1.7 3.5 1.4 4.7 2.4 3.7 1.6 4.7 1.8 3.5 1.5 4.9 1.5 3.7 1.4







2 (intensity)
5.5 2.1

3 (credibility)
6.1 2.0

4 (success)
5.3 2.2

Alpha experience scale M SD General intensity scale M SD Sensory deprivation scale M SD

61.6 7.2 45.6 9.0 49.3 10.3
3.9 1.2

62.0 8.6 38.9 9.6 47.4 8.1
3.4 1.8

57.8 9.6 37.4 8.3 46.7 9.9
3.3 1.6

54.7 5.4 32.1 9.3 43.3 11.4
2.2 1.5

56.8 8.4 36.5 9.2 45.6 8.7
2.9 1.9

55.1 6.0 34.8 10.1 42.7 9.9
3.2 1.2

Behavioral measure M SD



authenticity and genuineness of the experi- demonstrate that the majority of our research ential reports. participants possessed, to some degree, the Part C. The ANOVA on the Alpha Expe- capacity to experience rather unusual rience Scale supported the results from phenomenological states that, in order to Questions 1 and 2 of Part A. Although the become manifest, required little more than main effect did not reach significance, the an appropriate context, a quiet room, and planned comparison of the biofeedback attention to ongoing experiential content. groups versus the other four was significant, Much the same conclusion was reached in a F(l, 54) = 7.38, p < .01. Means from this related study by Hunt and Chefurka (1976), section are also shown in Table 1. For this who found, "in a setting involving isolation scale, the range is from 10 (an experience and inactivity for a period of ten minutes, very unlike the alpha state) to 90 (the highest [a] striking incidence of anomalous subpossible score). The General Intensity Scale jective reports in groups provided instruc(range, 7 to 63) yielded essentially the same tions involving direct sensitization to imfinding for this dimension: a significant mediate subjective state compared with main effect, F(5, 54) = 2.46, MSe = 85.35, nonsensitization groups" (p. 867). p < .05, and a significant planned compariDespite these general findings, we must son, F(l, 54) = 7.76, p < .01. consider the fact that the present investigaOn the other hand, the Sensory Depriva- tion has indicated that there is a significant tion Scale yielded no significant differences effect of the research participant's attribubetween groups. tion of responsibility for the experiential Part D. Although there were no signifi- alterations. In particular, the results demoncant effects from this section of the ques- strate that those participants who were led tionnaire, it is worth noting that the overall to attribute the cause of the experiential mean (3.15) is reasonably high, especially changes to a biofeedback procedure were considering the demand-for-honesty manip- significantly more affected by that procedure ulation. This lends further support to the than those who attributed the effects to an conclusion that, across groups, many RPs external placebo (the "brain wave stimuexperienced genuine alterations in con- lator"), to an (internal) task (the concensciousness of an extraordinary nature. tration exercise), to a combination of the latter two, or to uninstructed self-induction efforts. The lower intensity of the experiDiscussion ential reports of these different control One of the most striking findings from groups relative to that of the biofeedback the present research is the fact that across groups allows us to eliminate various intergroups, a large portion (approximately pretations as being sufficient in accounting two thirds) of the research participants for the effectiveness of the alpha training reported unusual or anomalous experiences context in generating the alpha experience. from moderate to intense degrees. This is The relative results from the "brain wave especially noteworthy given the brevity of stimulation" group suggest that the alpha the session and the very explicit demand training context does not act simply as a for honesty incorporated into the procedures. placebo. The concentration-exercise group This finding suggests that all six of our demonstrates that the intensity of the experimental contexts served as adequate reported experiences during alpha training evocators of unusual experiential states and cannot be accounted for simply as a result that the biofeedback placebo does not have of concentrating on a tone, and the selfa monopoly on these effects. induction group indicates that alpha expeAlthough there were significant differences riences during alpha training do not result between groups (discussed below), it should merely from the attempt to directly induce be emphasized that the within-group indi- this experience. vidual differences were, in general, equally Also ruled out is the possibility that the impressive. Nevertheless, the results clearly superiority of biofeedback is due solely to



the combination of internal (self) and external (placebo) attributions of responsibility inherent in the biofeedback set. This is demonstrated by the fact that the two biofeedback groups reported greater experiential alterations than the BWS+CE group, although all three of these groups share this feature of dual attribution. Moreover, the BWS+CE group, which received both the "brain wave stimulation" (an external attribution) and the concentration instructions (which permits an internal attribution), was no more likely to report the lambda experience than the two groups that received only one or the other of these treatments. This latter finding indicates that having people "help along" a placebo (Valins & Nisbett, 1972) does not always result in more powerful effects. Another possibility is that the biofeedback groups showed more of an effect because they were able to actively participate in its production, as discussed in the introduction. However, although this may explain the greater effect in the biofeedback groups relative to the BWS group, it will not do as a general explanation, since the other three nonfeedback groups (CE, BWS+CE, and SI) were also actively involved in their respective inductions. The question before us, then, is "Why is the biofeedback context more powerful in the evocation of the alpha experience?" I will proceed by sequentially considering three possible sorts of explanations. First of all, we can rule out any group differences in the general experimental setting: All of the randomly assigned RPs sat in the same chair for the same length of time in the same room; and they all heard the same or a similar tone and were given the same general rationale for the experiment (viz., a determination of the relationship between a certain experiential state and brain wave activity). Furthermore, all RPs were equally motivated in that the goal in all cases was the generation of an altered experiential state, and all RPs received the same written description of this to-be-induced state. Finally, there was minimal contact between the experimenter and the participant subsequent to group assignment.

Table 2 Correlations Between Perceived Success at the Induction Task and Experimental Report
Group Question



CE .58 .83


SI .63 .75

(Part A)

.64 .30

-.03 .11

.00 .36

(Part A)

Note. Fordf = 8, critical value of r - .55 fora = .10 and .63 for a = .05.

The next possibility to suggest itself is the effects of perceived success: Perhaps the biofeedback context allows for a greater perception of success than the other conditions and, hence, a correspondingly greater experiential alteration. However, the results did not support this interpretation: RPs in the feedback groups did not report greater experienced success at their task than RPs in the other groups. (It should be noted that although the means shown in Table 1 indicate that the Con-Fb group reported a somewhat larger degree of experienced success than the other four groups, a post hoc analysis [Duncan's] did not produce any significant differences between groups.) It appears that greater perceived success is, in general, neither necessary nor sufficient for greater experiential effects. To further clarify this point, we can look at the within-condition correlations between success ratings and reported experiences and thus determine the importance of perceived success in each group. Table 2, which shows these data, indicates that the relationship between perceived success and experiential outcome depends upon the nature of the "induction procedure." This relationship, not surprisingly, is strongest in those two groups (CE and SI) in which only self-attributions were available: If one is "on one's own" the outcome depends entirely upon one's personal achievement—or lack of it. In contrast are the persons in the CE+BWS group who believed the experiential outcome to be at least partly a direct function of the "brain wave stimulator" such that their



success or failure at the concentration task was not nearly as critical—accordingly, they showed the lowest average correlation between perceived success and experience. As for the biofeedback groups, we also expected high correlations, since these individuals were explicitly influenced to see the experiential outcome as an effect of successful alpha training. However, there was essentially no correlation in the case of the noncontingent-feedback group, and those for the contingent group were not especially strong. It must be remembered, though, that nearly all the persons in both feedback groups did experience themselves as having succeeded at the task—at least to some extent—so that these correlation data do not show that perceived success is unrelated to experiential outcome. Indeed, I have shown earlier (Plotkin, 1977) that perceived success at the feedback task is necessary (if not sufficient) for the occurrence of the alpha experience. Rather, these correlations suggest that the biofeedback RPs as well as those in the BWS+CE group, which are the ones who have both an internal and external attribution, are protected from a reliance on perceived success at their tasks. This interpretation, although tentative, is consistent with the finding that, of the six correlations for these three groups in Table 2, only one is significant. It is also not possible to explain the differences in experiential reports on the basis of differences in EEG alpha levels: Although the Con-Fb group obtained significantly higher alpha amplitudes than the other five groups, the NC-Fb group, which reported the most intense experiential charges, produced the lowest (nonsignificant) alpha amplitudes of all six groups. Moreover, none of the groups enhanced alpha levels above their prefeedback eyes-closed baselines. The final possibility to be considered here is that the biofeedback set simply held greater credibility, or evoked greater attributed power, than the other conditions. This is the "belief in biofeedback" factor (Peek, 1977). That is, it may be that the act of defining the context as biofeedback evokes a stronger expectancy of efficacy than do the other conditions—at least in

the population studied here, which should be representative of the larger Western population in its exposure to the current popular glorification of biofeedback. However, our data do not support this possibility. Item 3 (Part A) of the experiential questionnaire asked the RPs: "How would you rate the general effectiveness (in producing altered states of consciousness) of the type of induction procedure employed in this session?" They rated their induction procedure on a scale from 1 ("entirely ineffective") to 9 ("superior"). As indicated in Table 1, the biofeedback groups rated their procedure higher than the other four groups (means of 5.75 vs. 4.88), but this difference did not reach significance (despite the fact that it was a postsession assessment). Although there are no betweengroup differences in credibility to explain the obtained differences in experiential reports between groups, it is, nevertheless clear that within each group the likelihood and intensity of reported lambda experiences were moderately to strongly related to credibility ratings. Table 3 shows the correlation for each group between credibility ratings and Question 1 ("Did you experience the LE?") and Question 2 ("How intense was your experience?") of Part A of the questionnaire. Taken together, the above findings suggest that although the perceived credibility of the induction procedure is closely related to its effectiveness in generating experiential alterations, differential credibility cannot explain the superiority of the biofeedback context over the other conditions. So where does this leave us? It is clear that the biofeedback attribution is associated with more profound experiential alterations than the other four contexts, but it is unclear why. Some further possibilities suggest themselves, for which we are presently lacking data to substantiate. One concerns the issue of credibility ratings again. Although there were no significant differences, the means were in the expected direction. One may argue that a more sensitive and careful assessment of perceived credibility may have picked up some more significant differences. In particular, it may be justifiably argued that such an assessment

BIOFEEDBACK AND RESPONSIBILITY ATTRIBUTIONS Table 3 Correlations Between Perceived Credibility of Procedures and Experiential Report Group Question


.54 .56

.62 .67

CE .71 .87

BWS .85 .84

CE + BWS .63 .61

SI .85 .85

(Part A)

(Part A)

Note. For df = 8, critical value of r = .55 for a = .10 and .63 for a = .05.

would be more appropriately made before the start of the session, since a postsession measure may be confounded by experienced outcome. Alternately, one could ask a group of persons from the same population to read descriptions of all five induction procedures and rate them as to their predicted effectiveness, giving a more sensitive within-subjects comparison of perceived credibility. Also to be considered is the possibility that the greater effectiveness of the biofeedback context over each of the others has a different explanation depending upon which one of the others is being considered. For example, the relative ineffectiveness of the "brain wave stimulation" context may have been due to the absence of the RP's active participation and the lack of an experience of personal success, while the persons performing the concentration exercise and self-induction may not have seen themselves as capable of achieving on their own what they implicitly understood to be the requisite degree of success at their respective tasks. Likewise, the BWS+CE group, despite the fact that it shared the dualattribution feature with the biofeedback groups, may have suffered—not from doubts about the effectiveness of this type of induction—but from self-doubts about their personal ability to concentrate on the tone. The mean success rating of 3.7 for this group, although low, may nevertheless reflect their surprise that they did as well as they did at concentrating, while at the same time indicating their feeling that they did not do as well as would be required for the achievement of a solid success. In contrast, the biofeedback "trainees" are safeguarded from these sorts of self-doubts, since they, unlike the others, are given (a) an explicit

and numerical indication of the degree of "alpha enhancement" success required for the occurrence of the alpha experience and (b) periodic feedback as to precisely how they are doing relative to this criterion. The presence of this "objective" index of success, which allows the trainees to know exactly where they stand, may help explain the superiority of the biofeedback context over the others. Moreover, note that this "objective index" would not necessarily result in higher ratings of experienced success relative to the nonbiofeedback groups; what is involved here is the confidence that one has done well enough, which the nonbiofeedback participants may not have acquired, regardless of how well they felt they were doing—on an absolute level—at their respective tasks. In any case, it is clear that in future research we will require more sensitive and and comprehensive assessments of individuals' understandings of their performance and of the induction or treatment context in which they find themselves during biofeedback training or related (e.g., control) conditions. In conclusion, although it is unclear precisely how we are to explain the results from the present study, it is nevertheless evident that a biofeedback context can be significantly more powerful in generating positive experiential alterations than are several other related "placebo inductions." This finding serves as an empirical support and exemplification of the notion that when properly employed, biofeedback training can be an "ultimate placebo" (Stroebel & Glueck, 1973). Given the potential significance of this possibility, further comparative research is called for on the biofeedback


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placebo effect in EEG alpha training as well as the many other current biofeedback applications (Plotkin, Note 1). Reference Notes
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Received June 19, 1979 •

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