The placebo effect in psychology


This article attempts to explain the famous placebo effect in psychology, throwing light on the historical background of the effect.

You go to a doctor with a severe headache and fever. After examining you for a while, he gives you some shiny pills and asks you to take them every day after meals.

He says confidently that in a week or so you’d be absolutely fine and asks you to inform him when you return to the pink of your health.

After a week, your illness is gone and you’re perfectly healthy. You call the doctor and tell him that you’d taken the pills as prescribed. “The pills worked! Thank you”.

“Alright, hold your horses. They were just sugar pills”, says the doc, turning your elation and gratitude into an incredulous shock.

This strange phenomenon is known as the placebo effect.

Your mind affects your body

The placebo effect is a widely recognized phenomenon in the field of medicine. Studies after studies have confirmed that it works. We don’t know how exactly it works but that hasn’t stopped doctors from using it to help their patients.

The most likely explanation is that the mere belief that a particular medical intervention works changes our brain chemistry, producing chemicals that relieve the symptoms. 

When you exercise, for example, you’re actually putting your body under stress, putting it through the pain. Your body then releases pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins that make you feel good after a session of exercise.

It’s likely, that similar mechanisms are at play when, for instance, you seek social support in the face of trauma or tragedy. Seeking social support in such situations makes you feel better and helps you cope.

Similarly, in the placebo effect, when you’re convinced that a medical intervention works, the belief probably kicks in your body’s natural healing processes.

Placebo effect examples

In 1993, J.B. Moseley, an orthopaedic surgeon, had doubts regarding the arthroscopic surgery that he performed to fix knee pain. It is a procedure guided by a tiny camera that sees inside the knee and the surgeon removes or smooths out the cartilage.

He decided to carry out a study and divided his patients into three groups. One group got the standard treatment: anesthetic, three incisions, scopes inserted, cartilage removed, and 10 litres of saline washed through the knee.

The second group got anaesthesia, three incisions, scopes inserted, and 10 liters of saline, but no cartilage was removed.

The treatment of the third group looked from the outside like the other two treatments (anaesthesia, incisions, etc.) and the procedure took the same amount of time; but no instruments were inserted into the knee. This was the placebo group.

It was found that the placebo group, as well as the other groups, recovered from knee pain equally!

There were patients in the placebo group who needed canes before they were subjected to the sham surgery. But after the surgery, they no longer needed the canes and one grandfather even started playing basketball with his grandkids.

Rewind back to 1952 and we have the most bizarre case of the placebo effect ever documented…The doctor’s name was Albert Mason and worked as an anaesthetist at the Queen Victoria hospital in Great Britain.

One day, while he was about to give an anaesthetic, a boy of 15 was wheeled into the theatre. The boy had millions of warts (tiny black spots that make your skin look elephant-like) on his arms and legs.

The plastic surgeon for whom Albert Mason worked, was trying to graft skin from the boy’s chest which didn’t have these warts onto his hands. This actually made the boy’s hands worse and the surgeon was kind of disgusted with himself.

So Mason said to the surgeon, “Why don’t you treat him with hypnotism?” At that time it was well-known that hypnotism could make the warts vanish and Mason himself had successfully removed them several times using hypnotism.

The surgeon looked at Mason pityingly and said, “Why don’t you?” Mason immediately took the boy out of the theatre and performed hypnosis on the boy, giving him the suggestion, ‘The warts will fall off your right arm and new skin will grow which will be soft and normal’.

He sent him away and told him to come back in a week. When the boy returned it was clear that the hypnosis session had worked. In fact, the change was startling. Mason rushed to the surgeon to show him the results.

The surgeon was busy operating on a patient and so Mason stood outside and lifted both the arms of the boy to show the difference. The surgeon peeked at the arms through the glass door, handed over his knife to his assistant and rushed outside. 

He examined the arm carefully and was awestruck. Mason said, “I told you warts go” to which the surgeon retorted, “Warts! This isn’t warts. This is congenital Ichthyosiform Erythrodermia of Brocq. He was born with it. It’s incurable!”

what is the placebo effect

When Mason published this incredible healing event in the British Medical Journal, it created waves.

Many patients with this congenital skin condition flocked to Dr Mason hoping to get cured.

None of them responded at all. Albert Mason was never again able to repeat that first incredible success and he knew why. Here’s how he explains it in his own words…

“I now knew it was incurable. Beforehand, I thought it was warts. I had a conviction that I can cure warts. After that first case, I was acting. I knew it had no right to get well.