As a clinician who regularly assists people trying to overcome various mental, emotional, and behavioral problems, I have long been fascinated by the power of the placebo effect. Honestly, “fascinated” doesn’t even begin to describe how in awe I am by the power of belief — and how powerful belief and suggestion can be when it comes to self-healing and improvement (Changing Habits for Life Success). Who wouldn’t want to relieve stress, improve weight loss motivation, and decrease the likelihood of future mental health issues because of the help of placebos?
A study by Kaptchuk (2010) has revealed an even more amazing discovery, one that offers even more hope when it comes to the efficacy rates when using placebos to help people overcome various pains and problems. Until recently, most experts agreed that the “magic” of placebos (i.e. sugar pills, irrelevant suggestions, token products, etc.) lied in the deception portrayed by the healer. In other words, if your doctor suggested that you eat blueberries to help with the headaches you have been experiencing (assuming there has been no empirical evidence blueberries help with headaches), and your headaches immediately disappear after eating blueberries, then it can be assumed that it was the suggestion by the doctor – and not the blueberries – that accounted for the healing. Of course, most patients will immediately say it was the blueberries that caused the headaches to stop, but in reality this is a common example of how the placebo effect deceptively works.
Interestingly, when experts tell us how to address our problems we often believe them unconditionally, and sometimes things do in fact get better — but whether the change is due to the intervention — or belief about the intervention — will always be the question. Experts can be doctors, but they can also be mechanics, computer technicians, or police officers — so long as someone is viewed as an expert, people tend to stop using critical thinking skills and instead start believing just about anything the expert says if it sounds like it could help. For example, a mechanic might tell you to constantly run your fan inside your car to prevent carbon build up in your motor — if you know little about cars, would you believe him? Assuming you never have engine problems in the future, you might really believe that your car has been maintained because of always running the fan — even though this has nothing to do with engine performance.
When it comes to medicine, placebos would really help patients overcome a lot of their problems, but it is also unethical to deceive patients into believing something about a product that has no medicinal value (like a sugar pill). Of course, this saddens a lot of physicians as they know that:
A.) more patients would heal faster, and
B.) there are no side effects with placebos.This has led to quite a conundrum, but Kaptchuk’s recent study may have shed new light on how we can use the placebo while avoiding ethical concerns and still see the same positive effects.
Kaptchuk’s study revealed that when subjects were recommended to use a placebo for their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) but told that while the placebo pills had no direct medicinal value, the pills could improve IBS symptoms through the “mind-body healing process.” Amazingly, 59% of the subjects in this condition reported adequate relief, versus only 35% for the control group who did not receive the placebo.Think about that for a moment — the patients knew they were receiving an inactive drug (a sugar pill), but told that the “mind -body healing process” would still kick in, helping patients overcome their IBS symptoms. Amazingly, even when patients knew they were receiving a placebo, they still showed marked improvement versus subjects not prescribed a placebo!
These new findings about placebos are quite incredible, especially considering how the role of deception may not have been the only variable impacting perception and belief. In the future, it’s possible more doctors, clinicians, and various other helping professionals may turn to placebos, but instead of tricking their patients, they might actually tell them they are prescribing placebos.
For more about this research study check out the March 2011 issue of Psychology Today.