What is the placebo effect?
The placebo effect is a term used in medicine whereby someone’s beliefs or ideas about a treatment make their body respond to a physiologically inactive procedure- either a ‘drug’ or ‘surgery’.
Why is it important?
Belief and placebo are important because it means that our beliefs can alter our physiological chemistry, which is profoundly significant. Around 1/3 of all healing is attributed to the placebo effect.
What research has been done into the subject of the placebo effect?
The effects of placebos have been well documented in various scientific literature. In a sports performance study at the University of Turin, athletes were given opiate placebos that would generate the belief that they could run faster with less pain- and they did. It is noted by Irving Kirsch (2002) that up to 80% of the response to antidepressants is due to the placebo effect. Studies at Duke University have also found that a costly placebo is more effective than its cheap alternative, which further suggests the power of our beliefs in physical healing and health.
Placebo surgery research has also been demonstrated. Researchers at Houston VA Medical Center carried out placebo knee surgery on one of the groups, which involved the participant being sedated and the incision made and then sewn back up again. There were no differences between those and the patients who had actual knee surgery. It appears that our expectation makes all the difference.
How is the placebo effect demonstrated?
The placebo effect is demonstrated in two ways- expectancy and conditioning. We usually expect a particular drug to be effective- for example using aspirin to cure a headache. However, sometimes we need to be conditioned into believing a new drug will work. The stronger the expectation, the greater effect the placebo has. There are also nocebos- the expectation that something will have a detrimental effect on your health, which has also been proven to be the case.
Can you practise the placebo effect?
Placebos usually work well when we are told by someone that we trust- ever remember being told as a kid you are having some ‘magic cream’ on your knee graze? Doctors are the people we place our trust and faith in, so therefore the placebo effect is greater than a placebo suggested by a friend or family.