The Placebo Effect – the power of suggestion

A placebo is a substance or procedure that has no physiological effect.  Placebos are used in scientific trails as a control measure to ensure that the test results are accurate for the actual drug being tested.  Usually the test participants do not know whether they are taking the real drug or the placebo (blind trials).  However, many studies have found that members of the placebo (control) groups often show the same effects as if they had taken the drug. So another way to define a placebo is as a substance or procedure that can cause changes in the body despite having no active ingredients.  This has created a lot of problems for scientists in their research but shows the remarkable ability of the body to heal itself.  It should be noted that not everyone responds to the placebo but a significant number of people do and the real difficulty is in understanding why.

It has also been shown that the effects are real, the body does react as if it had received the real drug and body chemistry changes, it is not just that people report feeling better.

The wider implications of the placebo effect refers to the power of suggestion which can have a positive or negative effect. In most, but not all, cases the participants believed they were taking the real drug. This is great for healing but raises enormous concerns about the creation of illness in the first place. Do we create the illness because we believe that we will?  For example, scientists have told us that there is a genetic link to some forms of cancer, so if there is a family history of cancer does that increase our likelihood of getting cancer because of genetic susceptibility or because we believe that we are susceptible?  It may be both. Most genetic links suggest a tendency to the illness, not an inevitability.

The power of suggestion is well demonstrated in hypnosis, both in entertainment and therapy. Hypnosis can alter behaviour but it can also eliminate pain and accelerate healing. A relatively simple process of talking to an individual can produce dramatic effects on the body.

Beware of men (and women) in white coats. Suggestion is particularly powerful when it comes from someone we trust and doctors have a great responsibility here that is seldom fully recognised. We want our doctor to identify our illness and give a prognosis, and indeed he or she has a duty to do so whenever possible. The labeling of symptoms and the prognosis create expectations and generally we conform to those expectations. However, we do not know how much our expectations affect our outcomes.It should also be noted that many ‘proven’ drugs are ineffective in some people and we return to the doctor to try something else.

When people recover from serious and even ‘terminal’ conditions the one thing these cases have in common is a belief in the individual that they were going to recover. This seems to be more important than the actual treatment, not that treatment is unnecessary but that the patients believed the treatment would work. In contrast, some people seem to be resistant to treatment and they either die from the condition or quickly develop something else that kills them.

We cannot deny that medical science has been of wonderful benefit to mankind but the role of psychology in illness needs much deeper investigation.