Scientists have known since at least the 1930s that a doctor’s expectations and personal characteristics can significantly influence a patient’s symptom relief. Within research contexts, avoiding these placebo effects is one reason for double blind studies — to keep experimenters from accidentally biasing their results by telegraphing to test subjects what they expect the results of a study to be.
The new study both demonstrates that the placebo effect is transmitted from doctor to patient, and shows how it might work. Researchers randomly assigned undergraduate students to play the role of a patient or a doctor. The “patients” were given a controlled heat stimulus to the forearm, after receiving one of two types of cream from the “doctor.”
Students in the doctor group had previously been conditioned to believe that one of the creams was pain reliever. But in reality both of the two creams that they administered were an identical petroleum jelly-based placebo. And yet, when the doctor actors believed that the cream was a real medication — the researchers even gave the pseudo-medication a name, “thermedol” — the patient actors reported experiencing significantly lower amounts of pain.
As well-documented as the placebo effect is, to see it play out so cleanly surprised the study’s authors themselves. “We did several more studies to convince ourselves it wasn’t just a fluke,” says the study’s primary author, Luke Chang of Dartmouth University. “I’m impressed at how robust the effect seems to be.”