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What is the Placebo Effect?

Michael Pollick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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During almost all clinical drug trials, a certain percentage of volunteers receive an identical looking but chemically neutral pill or injection called a placebo. The group of volunteers who receive this placebo may be used as a control group, meaning their reactions during the trial will be compared to those volunteers who actually received the real medication. There is also the possibility that the volunteers or the testers themselves would have no idea which volunteers took a placebo and which received the real drug. In this scenario, a controversial phenomenon known as the placebo effect has been known to occur.

The placebo effect occurs whenever a volunteer's strong belief in the treatment actually triggers an improvement in his or her health. Even if the patient or volunteer is given a completely harmless sugar pill or an injection of sterilized water, the possibility of receiving a benefit from the real drug creates a placebo effect. According to some researchers, a certain percentage of those patients who unknowingly receive a placebo report some signs of improvement, especially in the areas of pain management and overall energy level.

Most experts consider the placebo effect to be psychosomatic in nature, since there are no active compounds present in the placebos. It has been speculated that the researchers themselves help to create this effect by telling volunteers they may or may not have received the active form of the drug. If a motivated volunteer chooses to believe he has indeed received the real drug, then he may become overly sensitive to any and all changes in his condition. Interestingly enough, many who have experienced the placebo effect only report minor to moderate changes in their conditions, not complete cures or remissions.

The placebo effect could also be related to the body's release of natural pain killers called endorphins, as well as other chemicals designed to combat depression or raise energy levels. While a placebo itself may have no discernible effect on a volunteer's body chemistry, some patients may experience a sense of calm or peace of mind after receiving what could be a beneficial treatment. This effect may be similar to the psychological benefits many people experience after a physician's exam. The apparent improvement of symptoms caused by the placebo effect could be the result of the volunteer receiving a professional's personal attention and reassurance.

The placebo effect is not universally recognized by researchers, however. Almost all of the benefits reported are of the non-quantifiable variety, such as pain reduction or improved mental focus, which means they cannot be verified easily through standard medical testing. The volunteer who received a placebo may be subconsciously supplying answers he or she believes the researchers would want to hear, specifically how effective the trial medication appears to be.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By Researcher — On Jun 10, 2008

One of the areas that placebo's have the most effect is in psychotropic drugs. A few years ago a college team used the freedom of information act to get the test results sent to the FDA and evaluated the placebo effect. Positive results compared to drugs ran very high. It caused one researcher to say that the real drugs themselves might be active placebos. The public is unaware of these drug test results and that drugs only have to beat placebo by any margin to be ruled safe and effective.

No one knows what the psychotropic drugs do or if they do anything. You can obtain the "prescription instructions" at the drug company's web site and verify this. Look for the phrase "The mechanism of action of (DRUG NAME), as with other drugs having efficacy in schizophrenia is unknown. However, it has been proposed that..."

You will find this identical statement under, "CLINICAL PHARMACOLOGY - Pharmacodynamics," for several drugs used in treating mental illness.

It has been proposed that Subliminal Distraction is the acting phenomenon that causes remissions or relapses. No drug company controls for Subliminal Distraction in their testing.

Subliminal Distraction appears in first semester college psychology under psychophysics. It arises because there are no 'off switches' for the sensor cells of your eyes and ears. Acoustic SD is studied as a fatigue factor but visual SD is unknown even though it is caused by that same phenomenon.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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