Field of Science

Placebo works

Placebo is funny! Harriet Hall, MD, in the newest edition of eSkeptic, explain that placebo treatments actually work, and suggest a few way in which they do. For example:
  • Placebo surgery works better than placebo injections
  • Placebo injections work better than placebo pills
  • Sham acupuncture treatment works better than a placebo pill
  • Capsules work better than tablets
  • Big pills work better than small
  • The more doses a day, the better
  • The more expensive, the better
  • The color of the pill makes a difference
  • Telling the patient, “This will relieve your pain” works better than saying “This might help.”
The main hypotheses about how placebo works are expectancy, motivation, conditioning, and endogenous opiates. These sound like good things, and in fact they are used in conventional medicine all the time.
We can’t isolate placebo effect from conventional medicine — it gets us thinking the wrong way. As the neurologist Robert Burton says, “Even given our advanced state of medical knowledge, much of routine medical care — from treating backaches to the common cold — relies primarily upon reassurance and hope, not disease- specific treatments … we need to reconsider how to facilitate the placebo effect with minimal risk and cost, and without deception.”
Humans work in mysterious ways. One of the most important lessons of science, in mind mind, is that we are not in control of ourselves by far - lots and lots of things go on in our minds that "we" are not in control of, or even aware of. We are masters at deluding ourselves, and placebo treatments is a testament to that.


  1. There's even evidence that some drugs work by enhancing the placebo effect. There was a nice article on this in the New Scientist last year.

  2. That article is not free. Got a copy?


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS