The power of suggestion: Psychological placebos found to be as effective as medical placebos
06/04/2019 // Edsel Cook // Views

Swiss researchers suggest that placebos were all in the mind. They recently conducted a trio of experiments that indicated a placebo didn't need to come in physical form, as long as a healthcare professional could convince a patient about the supposed effectiveness of the psychological placebo.

A placebo is any substance or treatment that does not achieve any therapeutic effects by design. On some occasions, a medical placebo produces some impact on the health of the patient. It may also end up working if it gets psychological effects attributed to it.

As such, placebos and psychotherapy can be classed together as psychology-based treatments. Both methods rely on similar psychological approaches and can pull off more or less the same effects on patients. They are also highly dependent on the relationship between the patient and the healthcare provider, especially by the patient's assumption that he or she will make a recovery.

The majority of scientific literature on placebos relies on the biomedical model. Researchers give an inert pill and accompanying medical explanation to participants. The combination of non-therapeutic tablet and persuasion leads to a matching effect.

However, few studies have investigated the effect of placebos with a psychological "narrative." (Related: Why the vaccine industry REFUSES to conduct clinical trials using a genuine placebo control group.)

The effects of a placebo treatment with an attached psychological narrative

To amend this lack of information, the University of Basel conducted three studies involving psychological placebos. The Swiss researchers received support from their German counterparts at the Institute of Psychology of the University of Zurich (UZH).


Based on the results from their 421-strong study cohort, they reported that attributing specific psychological effects to a placebo could give real impacts to the normally inert treatment. They narrowed down the possible factors that determined the effects of placebos.

One was the narrative – the psychological explanation given to participants alongside their share of the inert pills. The other factor was the relationship between the researchers and the patients.

In their experiments, the Basel and UZH researchers chose the color green as the placebo treatment. They showed different videos to participants, with one video featuring the color itself and the other one accompanied by a psychological narrative.

The second video offered up explanations about how green triggered effects such as "early conditioned emotional schemata" – that is to say, the color activated the thought pattern governing a person's emotions, a habit he or she formed at a young age and expanded in later years.

A friendly healthcare provider can convince a patient that a placebo works

Furthermore, the researchers presented the video-based placebos in different contexts. Sometimes they adopted a neutral relationship with the participants. On other occasions, they befriended the patients.

After watching the videos, the participants accomplished a survey over the course of the next few days. They evaluated their own health while being influenced by the placebo, any narrative present, and their relationship with the researchers.

The results of the three trials showed that placebo treatments produced beneficial effects on the health of the participant – but only if the patient also received a psychological narrative from researchers who acted friendly toward them. These narrative-reinforced placebos from "friendly doctors" hit the peak of their effectiveness right after their administration to the patients, but they also continued to demonstrate reduced levels of benefits for up to a week after treatment.

"The observed effects were comparable with those of psychotherapeutic interventions in the same populations," explained Basel researcher Jens Gaab, the lead investigator of the study. "It challenges both research and clinical practice to address these mechanisms and effects, as well as their ethical implications."

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