Do you remember the Q-Ray Bracelets? You know, the magnetized wristbands that vowed to provide immediate and significant pain relief from arthritis and other chronic ailments?

Well, you won’t see much of that marketing anymore; in 2008, the producers of the Q-Ray Bracelets were legally required to give back customers a maximum of $87 million as a consequence of misleading and fraudulent advertising.1

The issue had to do with making health claims that were not backed by any scientific verification. On the contrary, powerful evidence existed to show that the magnetized wristbands had NO impact on pain reduction, which did not bode well for the producer but did wonders to win the court case for the Federal Trade Commission.2

The wishful thinking fallacy

Ok, so the Q-Ray bracelets didn’t work (besides the placebo effect), yet they sold extraordinarily well. What gives?

Without delving into the depths of human psychology, the straight forward answer is that we have a strong disposition to believe in the things that appear to make our lives better and quite a bit easier.

On an emotional level, you’d love to believe that using a $50 bracelet will take away your pain and that you don’t have to bother with pricey medical and surgical procedures.

If, for example, you happen to struggle with chronic arthritis in your knee, which decision seems more appealing?

        a. Scheduling surgery for a total knee replacement

        b. Going to the mall to purchase a magnetic bracelet

Your natural inclination is to give the bracelet a try. You already want to trust that the bracelet will work, so now all you need is a little push from the advertisers and some social confirmation from witnessing other people wearing them.

But it is exactly this natural inclination, combined with the inclination to seek out confirming evidence, that will get you into the most trouble.

If it sounds too good to be true…

Keeping in mind the Q-Ray bracelets, let’s say you’re having difficulties from hearing loss; which approach sounds more desirable?

       a. Booking a consultation with a hearing specialist and obtaining professionally programmed hearing aids

       b. Purchasing an off-the-shelf personal sound amplifier online for 20 bucks

Just like the magnetized wristband seems much more attractive than a visit to the physician or surgeon, the personal sound amplifier seems much more desirable than a visit to the audiologist or hearing instrument specialist.

But unfortunately, as with the magnetic bracelets, personal sound amplifiers won’t cure anything, either.

The difference between hearing aids and personal sound amplifiers

Before you get the wrong impression, I’m not suggesting that personal sound amplifiers, also referred to as PSAPs, are fraudulent — or even that they don’t work.

On the contrary, personal sound amplifiers often do give good results. Just like hearing aids, personal sound amplifiers are made with a receiver, a microphone, and an amplifier that capture sound and make it louder. Viewed on that level, personal sound amplifiers work fine — and for that matter, so does the act of cupping your hands behind your ears.

However when you ask if PSAPs work, you’re asking the wrong question. The questions you should be asking are:

  1. How well do they deliver the results?
  2. For which type of people do they function best?

These are exactly the questions that the FDA addressed when it produced its advice on the difference between hearing aids and personal sound amplifiers.

As stated by the FDA, hearing aids are defined as “any wearable instrument or device designed for, offered for the purpose of, or represented as aiding persons with or compensating for, impaired hearing.” (21 CFR 801.420)3

Quite the opposite, personal sound amplifiers are “intended to amplify environmental sound for non-hearing impaired consumers. They are not intended to compensate for hearing impairment.”

Although the difference is transparent, it’s easy for PSAP producers and retailers to get around the distinction by simply not bringing it up. For example, on a PSAP package, you may find the tagline “turning ordinary hearing into extraordinary hearing.” This assertion is obscure enough to avoid the issue completely without having to describe exactly what the expression “turning ordinary hearing into extraordinary hearing” even means.

You get what you pay for

As reported by by the FDA, PSAPs are simplified amplification devices suitable for individuals with normal hearing. So if you have normal hearing, and you wish to hear better while you are hunting, bird watching, or tuning in to far off conversations, then a $20 PSAP is ideal for you.

If you have hearing loss, however, then you’ll need professionally programmed hearing aids. Although more expensive, hearing aids offer the power and features required to correct hearing loss. The following are some of the reasons why hearing aids are superior to PSAPs:

  • Hearing aids amplify only the frequencies that you have trouble hearing, while PSAPs amplify all sound indiscriminately. By amplifying all frequencies, PSAPs won’t allow you to hear conversations in the presence of background noise, like when you’re at a party or restaurant.
  • Hearing aids have integrated noise reduction and canceling features, while PSAPs do not.
  • Hearing aids are programmable and can be perfected for maximum hearing; PSAPs are not programmable.
  • Hearing aids contain numerous features and functions that minimize background noise, provide for phone use, and provide for wireless connectivity, for example. PSAPs do not typically come with any of these features.
  • Hearing aids come in various styles and are custom-molded for maximum comfort and cosmetic appeal. PSAPs are typically one-size-fits-all.

Seek the help of a hearing professional

If you believe you have hearing loss, don’t be enticed by the low-cost PSAPs; rather, arrange for a visit with a hearing specialist. They will be able to precisely appraise your hearing loss and will ensure that you get the most effective hearing aid for your lifestyle and needs. So despite the fact that the low-priced PSAPs are enticing, in this scenario you should go with your better judgment and seek professional help. Your hearing is worth the effort.