Gas-Saving Gizmos and the Placebo Effect: Why People Claim Real Gas Savings from Methods that Can't Possibly Work

Posted by erlan | Posted in Gadgets and Gizmos | Posted on 25-12-2010


People often claim to realize significant improvements in their cars’ fuel economy using completely bogus methods. Don’t just laugh at them. You can learn something important from these preposterous claims.

We’ve all seen those preposterous claims of tremendous improvements in gas mileage using scientifically dubious gadgets, additives, or techniques. We have seen the snake-oil salesmen change their stories after their explanations have been debunked, claiming that the same technique does work, but for different reasons than what they said before.

And people buy it. And people who buy it state that it really did save them some gas.

Why? You know why the people with something to sell claim that their gizmos really work, but why do the people who bought the gizmos say that they really work?

There are two main reasons:

1. They never really measured their gas mileage before they started using the gizmo, and they simply want to believe that their new gas mileage must be better than what they were getting before.

2. Perhaps unconsciously, they are applying other gas-saving techniques so that they truly are saving fuel, but not because of the gizmo. This is what we might call the “placebo effect.”

These two reasons for unbelievable claims of improved gas mileage should teach the skeptic two things:

1. You ought to measure your true gas mileage once in a while, just so you know what it is. Even if you have no intention of buying a gas saving gizmo, gas mileage can be an indicator of problems with your car, so if you see a sudden decrease, you know there’s something that needs attention.

2. That “placebo effect” offers a lesson in real, inexpensive ways to improve your car’s gas mileage.

This “placebo effect” I’m describing is very similar to the placebo effect in medicine. Patients report benefits from a fake “drug” that actually has no pharmaceutical properties. The benefits are real, and come about only because the patient wants to believe that the “medicine” is working.

But that same token, someone who has just invested some money, time, and effort putting that hokey gizmo on their car really wants to believe that it is doing some good. Maybe without even realizing it, they are using a little less pressure on the accelerator. Or besides installing the gizmo, they also topped off the pressure in their tires while they were at it. Or maybe they are now using that snake-oil fuel additive and they replaced their air and fuel filters.

Yes, many people may be realizing improvements in fuel economy after using some gizmo that can’t possibly work. And they are seeing these improvements, not because of the gizmo, but in spite of the gizmo.

The lesson for the rest of us is this: Yes, you can get better gas mileage. You can improve your car’s fuel economy by accelerating a little more gently, driving a little slower on the highway, keeping your tires properly inflated, and keeping up with your car’s maintenance schedule.

You might not need that expensive and scientifically unsound gizmo at all.


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