I really find the placebo effect pretty fascinating. I mean, it’s pretty amazing what we as humans do when our bodies and minds are tricked. Let me slow down and give a brief explanation of the placebo effect…
A placebo is a “fake drug” (read no active ingredient, often a sugar pill) given to a control group in medical trials to see if a real drug (with active ingredient) has any real effect. The people in the experiment don’t know whether they have received the real drug with active ingredient or the placebo drug with no active ingredient. This way, researchers can see if there is any marked improvement for those individuals who receive the actual drug versus those who received the placebo. What often happens is that even those who receive the placebo drug (remember, NO active ingredient) do show real improvement in whatever condition they are testing. This is called the “placebo effect” – people have real responses (physiologically, emotionally, etc.) to a fake/non treatment. This is largely based on the expectation that they should be feeling these changes/responses. [Side note: This does not mean that active ingredients never work; what researchers/doctors are often looking for in these kinds of clinical studies is that the individuals receiving the real drug (active ingredient) get better relative to the placebo group (even though the placebo group may also experience improvements in condition).]
Again, I’ve always been fascinated by this whole phenomenon…instances of people taking a placebo for hair growth products such as Rogaine, and they’ve experienced hair growth. (Remember, there was no active ingredient, yet their bodies had an actual physiological outcome!) Or cases, where people were rubbed with leaves they were told was poison ivy (even though it really wasn’t), yet they still broke out in rashes. Or medicine for migraines. I think it’s pretty wild, and it says a heck of a lot about our own expectations of what should happen, and how those expectations really do, in fact, shape what happens. In this way it’s very similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that our expectations or beliefs end up shaping the reality itself.
I clearly remember one evening spent with a close friend and having a discussion with him about the placebo effect. He suggested that we take 5 hour energy drinks before heading out for a night at the bars, saying that he had done it before and had a great time. I simply told him that it was probably a placebo effect that he had experienced, and that if I gave him a shot of flavored water but told him it was the 5 hour energy drink, he would go out and have a great time as well, because he would be primed and expecting that to happen, and thus it would end up happening. Now my friend is a medical doctor, and he started going back and forth with me about the active ingredients in the energy drinks and how those had real effects. And my response to him was that I certainly did not deny that these ingredients have real effects, but that if given a placebo, he would experience many of the same effects without the 5 hour energy. It was a fun debate to have, especially with a doctor. [Side note: He had a 5 hour energy, I didn’t. We both had a great time.]
So having this debate with a doctor also brought up some interesting, and larger, more important (perhaps) questions. If the placebo effect exists, what are the role of drugs and medications, and different treatments? Now remember, I’m not arguing that drugs or medical treatments have no effect; just that our own expectations have a lot to do with the actual effect that they do have. (And the research is pretty clear and backs me up on this one!) The placebo effect is real and it does cause real improvements and outcomes when given to people. Individuals’ expectations that they have received a treatment and should be getting better has a lot to do with that person actually getting better (even when the placebo has no active ingredient!). A few weeks ago, NPR talked about a medical study showing exactly this, but with an interesting twist. They gave some people with Parkinson’s a placebo drug (no active ingredient) and told them it cost $100, and they gave another group with Parkinson’s a placebo drug (still no active ingredient) and told them it cost $1500. Both groups were told the drugs should have the same effect, but those with the more expensive dose had better improvements with respect to stiffness and muscle tremor. (Remember, neither group received anything with any actual active ingredients, yet both groups showed improvement, and the pricier drug showed even more improvement than the cheaper one!) Or this similar study involving the price of pain pills.
So, what does all of this mean? I will point to a few things…. First, it’s really interesting in general, and I enjoy hearing and reading stories about the placebo effect. Second, it certainly means that our mindset and expectations have a lot to do with our reality, including how we improve medically. To add some nuance, this particular study also shows that our expectations can be influenced by factors such as price, where people tend to believe that the more expensive pill/treatment must be better (and simply from this expectation, it does create better outcomes).
Last but not least, the placebo effect can also be pretty entertaining when pulling pranks on people…. Check out Jimmy Kimmel getting people to “taste” the expensive coffee, and the video below that showing people tasting delicious water (from a hose)…