The placebo effect is a fascinating phenomenon whereby a person’s physical or mental health appears to improve after they are administered an inactive “look-alike” substance or treatment known as a placebo. Common placebos include sugar pills, water or saline injections, and even fake medical procedures. What is most astonishing about placebos is that they can even cause measurable, physiological changes, such as an increase in one’s heart rate or blood pressure.
Today, placebos are used in clinical trials and are an essential part of research into new treatments. Researchers use them to help test the effectiveness of new health care treatments. For ethical reasons, people participating in these trials are told beforehand that they may be given a “dummy” treatment. While the reasons for the influence of a placebo are still not fully understood, researchers have proposed several factors that help explain the phenomenon.
One explanation is that the ailment that the placebo was used to address was a self-limiting disorder. These kinds of disorders are the ones that would eventually be resolved on their own, with or without medications, like the common cold. In clinical studies of depression, for instance, researchers found that around one-third of patients tend to get better even without drugs or a placebo. In other words, the end of the symptoms is just a coincidence.
Another explanation is that classical conditioning plays a role. Classical conditioning is a type of unconscious learning that occurs through continuous exposure to certain stimuli. When two different stimuli are linked together in a person’s mind, they produce a learned response. For example, a patient that is regularly given the same pill to relieve their pain may unconsciously begin to associate the pill itself with pain relief. As a result, when they’re given a placebo that looks like the pill, they actually feel their pain being relieved because their mind has been conditioned to react that way.
The third theory is that a person’s expectations can influence their perception of the placebo. The placebo effect may be triggered by a person’s strong belief in the benefits of a treatment and their expectation of feeling better rather than the characteristics of the placebo. In this way, the prescribing physician’s enthusiasm for a certain treatment may impact the patient’s response. Additionally, if an individual taking a placebo expects the drug to work, their expectation may lead them to unconsciously redefine their symptoms to match what they believe they should feel. For instance, a sharp pain might be interpreted as a dull ache instead.
Yesel Kang Staff Reporter teen/1634619499/1613367750
1. What are common placebos?
2. What are placebos used for?
3. What is an explanation for the placebo effect?
1. Have you ever experienced this effect?
2. What do you think about clinical trials?
3. What is a real-life example of the placebo effect?
4. What do you think is the best explanation for the placebo effect?