Tag Archives: Ethics

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

There are some preconceptions about placebos and the placebo effect. You might be surprised to read, for example, that ‘placebo pills’ are not needed to achieve a ‘placebo effect’. This article unpacks six perhaps surprising features of the placebo effect, namely:

  1. Placebos have a dark cousin: nocebos
  2. Placebos work even if people know they are placebos
  3. Honest placebos are ethically acceptable
  4. Placebo effects are part of most treatment effects
  5. You don’t need placebos to have placebo effects
  6. You can generate placebo (and nocebo) effects in yourself

Placebo as Science

Henry K. Beecher

What is now emerging as ‘placebo science’ has its roots in an influential 1955 paper entitled ‘The Powerful Placebo’ by Henry K. Beecher which proposed that placebo effects were clinically important. This remains the most commonly-cited placebo reference.

Henry Knowles Beecher (February 4, 1904 – July 25, 1976) was a pioneering American anesthesiologist, medical ethicist, and investigator of the placebo effect at Harvard Medical School, which now, fittingly enough, co-convenes the Program in Placebo Studies & Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS)
with the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The prestigious Beecher Prize, named in his honor, is awarded annually by Harvard Medical School to a medical student who has produced exceptional work in the field of medical ethics.