The Placebo Effect
Doctors, including psychologists, seek to help patients and assist them in healing their ailments. One way they do this is through the use of placebos. Placebos are often sugar pills or other harmless substances that are presented to patients. The patient is not usually aware they are taking a placebo. In many cases, placebos still help patients. The patient believes the pill will help them and because of this perception, it usually does.
Placebos can take many forms. Some doctors use vitamins and others may use sugar pills. Placebos do not contain any active ingredients. During clinical trials, placebos may be administered to best ascertain the efficacy of the medications administered. This helps doctors better determine potential side effects of trial medications, in addition to understanding if they work or not. Studies have confirmed that administering a placebo can influence the symptoms experienced by patients.
For example, in an article published by Harvard Magazine, Ted Kaptchuk conducted a randomized trial and examined the results. Some patients were administered pills and others were administered acupuncture treatments. He found that many patients exhibited the side effect symptoms they were warned they may experience from taking the drug. Regardless of what treatment they received, both groups reported they felt side effects. Others reported they felt relief. “In one part of the study, half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments. And in both cases, people began to call in, saying they couldn’t get out of bed. The pills were making them sluggish, the needles caused swelling and redness; some patients’ pain ballooned to nightmarish levels. “The side effects were simply amazing,” Kaptchuk explains; curiously, they were exactly what patients had been warned their treatment might produce. But even more astounding, most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill. These were exceptional findings: no one had ever proven that acupuncture worked better than painkillers. But Kaptchuk study didn’t prove it, either. The pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the “acupuncture” needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin. The study wasn’t aimed at comparing two treatments. It was designed to compare two fakes.” (Feinberg, 2013) It is likely that the patients experienced ill side effects because they were previously briefed on the possibility that they may occur. Those who felt better may have believed they would be getting better.
In the text book Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience by E. Bruce Goldstein, the concept of perception is explained. The placebo effect is used to illustrate the effects of an individual’s perception. “This decrease in pain from a substance that has no pharmacological effect is called the placebo effect. The key to the placebo effect is that the patient believes that the substance is an effective therapy. This belief leads the patient to expect a reduction in pain, and this reduction does, in fact, occur. Although many different mechanisms have been proposed to explain the placebo effect, expectation is one of the more powerful determinants (Col- loca & Benedetti, 2005).” This exemplifies how an individual’s expectations or perception of what may occur influences their reality. The placebo effect is a powerful phenomenon that proves the relationship between what people think and believe in relation to their mind and body.
Overall, placebo and the placebo effect continue to perplex and hold the interest of medical professionals. Placebos are helpful in understanding medications, diseases and ailments and the psychological effects of perception.
Feinberg, Cara. “The Placebo Phenomenon.” Harvard Magazine. N.p., Jan.-Feb. 2014. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
Goldstein, E. B. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience, 4th Edition. Cengage Learning, 2015. [CengageBrain Bookshelf].