The Headstock Placebo Effect

There’s an excellent podcast I listen to called The Skeptics Guide to The Universe. It’s published every Sunday and is a really great mix of science news, critical thinking, skepticism and geek humour. I discovered them in summer 2005 and have listened to every episode. I also regularly listen to The Guardian’s Football Weekly, Asymco/5by5’s Critical Path (which I listen to for work reasons but also really enjoy), Kevin Smith’s Smodcast output (especially Hollywood Babble On), Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and more latterly The Guitar Podcast. But The SGU is the podcast that I’ve listened to the longest and it’s an indispensable part of my week to get the new episode on a Sunday and  listen to it while doing housework etc.

A few weeks ago they discussed a study that some scientists did on violins. The SGU Host Steven Novella blogs about the study here. He writes

…a researcher had 17 professional violinists try to tell the difference among six violins – two Stradivarius, one Guarneri, and three modern violins. They were literally blinded to which violin they were playing (they were blind-folded). Seven stated they could not tell which one(s) were a Stradivarius, seven guessed incorrectly, and three guessed correctly. This is consistent with random guessing.

Now these were all good violins. The modern ones were worth (if I recall correctly from the podcast) around $10k, but the students could not reliably distinguish them from the Stradivarius (Stradivarii?) that of course are worth close to a million bucks.

This to me has an obvious relevance to Telecasters. Is a Custom Shop $3k guitar really worth more than a $1000 American Standard, a $500 MIM or even a $250 Squier standard? I think this is the viewpoint a lot of my geekier posts have come from. I think I can say with some confidence that an Affinity at $170 is a lot worse than a top line Fender Custom Shop guitar, but at some point on Squier/Fenders bewildering price spectrum I believe you will hit some kind of ceiling where the incremental value gained from spending extra money will be marginal. I just don’t know where that ceiling is. As Novella writes

…subjective experiences can be modulated by suggestion, expectation, and other sensory cues.

… such as, I would argue, the brand on the headstock (Fender/Squier), the country of origin (US, Mexico, China) or even just the price itself.


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