The Placebo Effect


The placebo effect is a term from scientific research that has taken on a second cultural understanding in the zeitgeist. In medical research the placebo effect is the name given for any improvement in the patients symptoms that can’t be explained by the intervention being studied. This includes a host of natural explanations such as regression to the mean (the illness getting better on its own), experimenter bias, observer effects, or discrepancies in the study methodology. The placebo is usually a sugar pill that is given so that the researchers can ensure double blinding (this means both the researchers and the participants don’t know whether they are on the active treatment or not). This helps to limit the impact of the biases from the researchers and participants on the research. Some trials do include a “no treatment” wing but they are not standard.

Culturally many people seem to believe that the placebo effect is the idea of the mind healing the body. This is due to some very poor reporting on study results. A study where the drug performs as well as placebo is often reported as “placebo works as well as x drug” - whereas in reality that is a study that shows a new drug that doesn’t work. It’s not that the brain has overcome the illness, it is just that the study has proved that the new drug being tested is no better than doing nothing. There are always going to be random occurrences of remission in any illness, this can also inflate the mythology around the placebo effect. This also opens window to every woo practitioner to claim that their treatment works through the power of placebo.

One of the books that a lot of skeptics read is Bad Science by Ben Goldacre - a good book with a great introduction to lots of skeptical ideas. However Ben’s work on placebo effects has been questioned more recently by Mike Hall on the Skeptics with a K podcast. Mike has researched the original papers that Goldacre cited and has noticed issues with the studies, like small sample sizes which suggests that the results aren’t as definitive as Goldacre stated in the book. More research needs to be done as to whether the placebo effect is really present or just a way to explain discrepancies in studies. Undoubtedly the brain has an impact on how the body functions, however these claims can be massive overstated.