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What is the placebo effect?

Often referenced in both scientific studies and pop culture, a placebo is a substance with no active effect. In simple terms, it does nothing. They are often just sugar pills given to a participant who is told they are something else, such as a painkiller. The reason this is done is because of something called “The Placebo Effect”. In this blog, we will look at what the placebo effect really is, and the scientific basis behind it.


The Placebo Effect

Placebo means “I will please” in Latin, and got its name because, in theory, it is supposed to help a patient with whatever problem they have. The basic theory behind this is that if you genuinely believe something is going to happen, your body will work to make it happen. This is where the placebo effect often gets misunderstood. A placebo can’t trick your body into doing anything. Rather, it can help with things your body already has control over.

The best example of this is the one where placebos have been shown to be the most effective: pain. Pain is essentially just signals moving from an area of your body to the brain. But there is also a psychological aspect to pain, in that the more you focus on it, the worse it seems to be, the worse your mood gets, and the more the pain annoys you. In a situation like this, a placebo is believed to work in two different ways. Firstly, once you have taken the “painkiller”, your psychological outlook will improve. You will feel like you can forget about the pain, and take any small relief as a sign that it’s working. Secondly, your firm belief will actually tell your body that there is no need to keep sending and receiving these signals, as the situation has been taken care of. Sometimes this belief can be powerful enough to cause a reduction in the level of pain.

The Science

Placebos have long been used in medical studies to test the effectiveness of new treatments. Typically, a group of volunteers would be split in two, with one half getting the real treatment, and the other getting the placebo, but nobody knowing which one they were getting. This was done to test how effective the real treatment really is. For most of scientific history, seeing the placebo group improve too much was a sign that your treatment wasn’t effective, but that outlook has been changing recently. Now scientists believe that an effective placebo could signal that there is more to the solution than drugs and chemicals.

The ritual of undergoing treatment to make yourself better is believed to play a key role in the placebo effective. This becomes even more effective when participants understand their problem, and what the treatment is supposed to do, in great detail. A 2017 study from Harvard found that participants who know they are taking placebos can experience almost as much relief a those who don’t. In this study, one group thought they were receiving real treatment, one knew it was a placebo but got a short lecture on the placebo effect, and the third group knew it was a placebo, but did not hear the lecture. While the final group saw no effect, the first two were more or less on par with their pain relief, which demonstrates the power of psychology and the importance of understanding your condition.

It is unlikely that we will fully understand the placebo effect anytime soon, and crucial to remember that it has its limitations. But science has shown us that the placebo effect can be a very powerful tool, and whether we use it to test treatments or treat patients, there is a lot more to learn about this mysterious phenomenon.