Tag Archives: Society and Culture

Expectations and the Placebo Effect

What you expect is often what you get, and the placebo effect is at work! We have noted elsewhere that one possible account for the engagement of the placebo effect is the wish to ‘please the physician’, to be a ‘good patient’. According to this Stanford study, this might come as only a few positive words. “… When a health care provider offers a few encouraging words about their patient’s recovery time from an allergic reaction, symptoms are significantly reduced.”

Similarly expectations about the benefit of exercise can be seen to actually impact on life expectancy outcomes. In this study “the team looked at death rates. They used statistical models to account for other factors linked to death, such as age, chronic illnesses, and body mass index (BMI). Even accounting for these risk factors, those who saw themselves as less physically active were 71% more likely to die in the 21 years following the original survey.”

Sex And The Placebo Effect: Women Learn, And Men Just Listen!

Sex differences for placebo effects not only exist, but they follow some rules, as it appears:

* Despite higher pain sensitivity in females, placebo analgesia is easier to elicit in males;

* It appears that conditioning is effective specifically to elicit nocebo effects;

* Conditioning works well to elicit placebo and nocebo effects, but only in females;

* Verbal suggestions are insufficient to induce placebo effects in women but work in men.

Read the whole article, in Science Trends.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Are aphrodisiacs placebos? What would happen if you spent a whole day eating them?

Read about Insider writer Sara Hendricks’s experiment with binge-eating foods claimed to have aphrodisiac properties, leading up to (spoiler alert) her conclusion that “at the end of the day, whether or not an aphrodisiac food works might simply depend on how much faith you have in the placebo effect. Aphrodisiacs, as it turns out, may very well be in the eye of the beholder.”

Placebos in the Reader’s Digest

You know that something’s popular when it pops up in the Reader’s Digest. This article comments on the “growing scientific interest in the placebo effect”, and notes:

Because placebos are believed to work only on condition of expectation of positive relief, they were considered to be good only for psychosomatic ailments and not real physical ailments.

But this does not seem to be borne out by recent studies, nor by years of experience of many people around the world. Placebos have been shown to result in the real cure of physical ailments such as a broken heel or torn ligament, not only psychological ones.

Words Matter

We know that communication matters – in regard to any human exchange and any human relationship. We can also consider the words we use, and the way we use them, in relation to their value as ‘placebo’. The effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of communication can generate a placebo (or nocebo) effect, evidenced very clearly in the way that health practitioners interact with their clients, as illustrated in this article in the Irish Times, “Doctors Say One Thing. Patients Often Hear Something Else”.

“How patients frame questions and how doctors frame advice is an important element in successful health communication. Behavioural economists describe a phenomenon known as loss aversion: as humans, we are primed to feel losses nearly twice as heavily as we appreciate gains.

So for actions that we perceive as risky, a health message that presents the lack of action as an even greater risk is more effective. However, for actions that we don’t see as especially risky, presenting the action itself as beneficial has been shown to produce a better behavioural response.”

Want to think outside of the box? Try sniffing a placebo

We usually think of placebos as tools for therapy, or perhaps as marketing strategies, but here’s an idea about the placebo effect and creative thinking.

“The placebo effect is best known in medicine for making people feel better when they are given sham treatments. Now there is growing interest in using placebos to boost athletic and cognitive abilities.

Previous studies have found that people lift more weight and cycle harder when they take medicines with no active ingredients that are falsely labelled as performance-enhancing substances. Placebo pills have also been shown to improve scores in memory tests.

These findings prompted Lior Noy and Liron Rozenkrantz at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to test whether the placebo effect can stimulate creativity too.

They asked 90 university students to sniff a substance that smelled of cinnamon. Half the students were informed that the substance had been designed to enhance creativity.

The participants then completed a series of tasks designed to test their creativity. One involved rearranging squares on a computer screen into different shapes. Another required them to think up new uses for everyday items like shoes, pins and buttons.

Those who were told the smelly substance increased creativity scored higher on measures of originality. For example, they came up with more unusual shape configurations and novel applications for the everyday items. “The improvements weren’t enough to turn you into the next Picasso, but they were significant,” says Noy.”

Read the full article here.

‘Branding acts like a placebo’

“Branding acts like a placebo. It changes consumer perception and, in turn, those perceptions alter the nature of the product.”

Read the fascinating story of Lieutenant Colonel Beecher here (as well as a commentary on the placebo effect in marketing).

A recent example? The internet recently has been alive with stories about research into the placebo effect and our apprehension of the quality of wine – and, perhaps worryingly for some, the brain functions which govern our actual experience of its taste! (Hint: higher price = higher quality).

Here’s a sample article: Why expensive wine appears to taste better: It’s the price tag. The authros point out:

“Price labels influence our liking of wine: The same wine tastes better to participants when it is labeled with a higher price tag. Scientists have discovered that the decision-making and motivation center in the brain plays a pivotal role in such price biases to occur. The medial pre-frontal cortex and the ventral striatum are particularly involved in this.”

“Placebo Politics”

So now we have ‘placebo politics’, meaning “elevating or reducing the status of this or that group through symbolic actions that won’t have much if any material impact on policy.” In this article the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreements is seen as placebo politics: it won’t make any difference because the agreement was only ever a voluntary one and it’s “already being flouted”. Why, then, invoke the placebo response? Perhaps … for votes at home?