The Placebo Effect: What Is It?

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Medicine is developing and inventing new solutions day by day. Just a hundred years ago, people had no penicillin, and today they have much more. You could have suggested that scholars and researchers are now creating a new powerful treatment to cure all diseases at once, but wait. They are deceiving people, giving them nothing but candies! What? Why? Well, it’s called a placebo, and this thing has real chances to become that powerful treatment in the nearest future. Let’s find out how.

Placebo Effect Definition

First, what is placebo? Most of you have a pretty clear understanding of this term. It’s something that seems to be a treatment but has no real medical effect. Placebos may come in various forms, such as pills, injections, sham surgery, false procedures, etc. Patients are given placebos as a real treatment. They take pills or undergo certain operations, and everything looks real, except that it’s not real. For example, instead of a cure, a patient may get a vitamin supplement. But the fact that they are told that it’s a cure makes them believe it is so, and there are numerous cases when such a treatment has given amazing results. This is what they call the placebo effect.

But what is the placebo effect from a scientific perspective? Some believe it to be a breakthrough in medicine. Although this psychological phenomenon hasn’t been completely researched yet, scientists across the globe conduct experiments and their patients report improvements in their condition. Isn’t that magic?

How Does Placebo Work?

All the improvements are based purely on a personal belief and expectations. You have probably heard that our thoughts have the power to come true. The placebo effect is one of the brightest examples. Not all people respond to such treatment, though. As it’s linked to expectations, it would be fair to say that the more someone expects that the treatment will work, the more likely the treatment will work.

An interesting fact is that people who undergo a placebo treatment may not only feel the expected positive result but also all the possible side effects that this treatment could have had if it was real. Besides, some experiments involved people who knew they were given placebos, and the response was still positive.

What Can Be Treated with a Placebo?

Although the studies of this phenomenon continue, there are some conditions where placebos are already used quite commonly. One of the most researched uses is a painkiller. People who are using placebo pills to soothe or stop the pain in most cases manage to do it. Their expectations make their body produce endorphins, which results in pain relief.

Sleep and depressive disorders are other broad areas where fake pills can work very effectively. Also, such serious diseases as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease are becoming more treatable under the placebo effect. As for now, this effect has proved to work with illnesses and conditions where a patient identifies the symptoms on his or her own, and these symptoms somehow depend on the patient’s mental attitude.

The Placebo Effect

It’s interesting to know that because the placebo effect is becoming more positively accepted around the world, today companies producing drugs have to prove that their product has a better effect on a certain condition than placebos applied to treat this condition before they are allowed to let the product out on the shelves of drug stores.

The placebo effect demonstrates to the world the role of a human brain in a person’s physical health. Do you know that psychological perception of colors and sizes is used in advertizing? Well, it is also used in medicine. Dozens of studies have shown that the size and the color of a placebo pill influence the effect it will have in the end. For example, it was noticed that the larger it is, the stronger is the improvement. As for colors, it’s all about people’s associations. For instance, white reminds you of a white painkilling pill, while orange or red is associated with stimulants. The doctor just selects a pill of the color that is associated with the patient’s expectations.

There are some other mind-puzzling results of the placebo effect research linked to associations:

  • Patients who take two placebo pills instead of just one expect higher results, and that’s what they get.
  • Injections are commonly viewed as a more serious treatment method, which is why placebo injections were seen to have stronger results than placebo pills.
  • The effect of the treatment is different in different countries, which perhaps is somehow connected with mentality.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to investigate this mysterious but powerful phenomenon. Its benefits compared to traditional treatment options are quite obvious – they can be used along with any other real medicine without any complications, they can’t give any complications themselves, they can’t overdose, and they are cheap, which probably is the best thing about them.


  • De la Fuente-Fernández, Raúl, et al. “Expectation and dopamine release: mechanism of the placebo effect in Parkinson’s disease.” Science 293.5532 (2001): 1164-1166.
  • Kaptchuk, Ted J., et al. “Components of placebo effect: randomised controlled trial in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.” Bmj336.7651 (2008): 999-1003.
  • Moerman, Daniel E., and Wayne B. Jonas. “Deconstructing the placebo effect and finding the meaning response.” Annals of Internal medicine 136.6 (2002): 471-476.

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