The Placebo Effect Explained

The Placebo Effect Explained

The placebo effect refers to the phenomena an individual experiences when they believe they are receiving a medical treatment and have a perceived or real improvement in their symptoms. This perceived or actual improvement occurs despite receiving a placebo or “sham” treatment. The placebo is either simulated or medically benign and does not provide any therapeutic benefit by itself.

Examples of a placebo would be inert pills (often containing nothing but sugar), sham surgeries or sham manipulations.

In medical research, placebos are used as controls to evaluate new medical therapies and treatments. If a pharmaceutical company wants to see if a new drug is better at treating disease X, they may perform a study where half the patients randomly receive the benign pill (i.e. the placebo) and half receive the new drug. In theory, this allows them to isolate any improvement in the treatment group and attribute it to the new drug. Thus making placebo treatments a critical part of medical research.

There is very good evidence to support the existence of the placebo effect as a medical phenomenon. There are many examples, and I will provide a couple.

One study gave either a new antidepressant, an old tried-and-true antidepressant or a placebo to 3 randomized groups. At the end of the study, using EEG and depression scales, they found that individuals receiving the placebo actually had more improvement than either of the groups receiving antidepressants.

In another study, researchers gave electric shocks to individuals and then offered them either a 0.10 cent pill or a 2.50 cent pill to relieve the pain. What the research subjects did not know is that they were both placebo pills and they were the same. The results found that people were more likely to choose the expensive pill and that they had more pain relief from it then the cheaper pill.

There are various theories as to what causes the placebo effect. They all revolve around psychological phenomenon such as conditioning or the expectancy effect. I will not go into any detail about these current theories and encourage you to look them up if you are interested.

And that is sort of the gist of it. Placebo treatments are important for medical research and the placebo effect is a real phenomenon that physicians and researchers are trying to figure out how to harness in the real world, outside of the laboratory.

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