Placebo Effect

After reading and commenting on psucfb’s blog last week, I was really interested in some of the issues raised so this inspired me to delve in deeper and share my opinion with you all 😀

A placebo is a medically ineffectual treatment for a disease (or other medical conditions) designed to basically deceive the recipient into thinking the treatment will make them better. People who are given placebo drugs are unaware that it is medically ineffective and are told prior to taking it that it will improve their medical condition, many patients who receive the placebo drug are actually ‘fooled’ into believing this as after taking the drug they report feeling cured. This is known as the placebo effect. The placebo effect can occur from the recipients’ conscious belief in a drug, so if they convince themselves that it’s going to have an effect then it will. The placebo effect can also be an effect of the person’s subconscious associations between recovering and the experience of being treated.

 The placebo effect is very controversial, with a lot of people believing it is wrong to deceive the patients in such a way. There are extreme example cases of how the placebo can be deemed wrong, such as The – highly unethical -Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1932-72)*.  This is an infamous clinical study which investigated what would happen if syphilis was left untreated, so patients were provided with a placebo treatment instead of actual syphilis treatment. The public health sector enrolled 600 men (399 with syphilis, 201 disease-free), the men were unaware that they ever had syphilis and they were told they were just being enrolled for free healthcare on “bad blood”.  Midway through the experiment (1947) penicillin was recognized as a curable drug for syphilis, yet the experiments chose to ignore this and refused to save lives by giving the patients penicllin and they carried on with their placebo treatment!!!  Once the press found out about the experiment in 1972 the study was immediately called off, however, it was unfortunately too late as many of the men had died from syphilis and (as they were never made aware of their disease) they had also passed it on to their wives which ultimately lead to their children being born with syphilis.

This experiment is obviously very wrong and unethical, and did not show any signs of placebo treatment working. However, there are cases where the placebo effect has been proved very effective and since this experiment, ethical considerations have been put into place making the placebo effect  more humane. Studies now require informed consent, communication of diagnosis, and accurate reporting of test results. And in terms of medicial experiments, the placebo effect should be used for either minor illnesses or not be used unless all other forms of treatment have been tried out first!

An article in the Gaurdian** supports this, suggesting that 88% of German doctors prescribe placebos to patients who are suffering with mild illnesses such as stomach upsets. Placebos used consist of vitamin pills, homeopathic remedies and (in some cases) even sham surgery, these placebo treatments have proved very popular with the patients, as many have believed that they have been cured. Even though the stomach upsets were not life threatening, the placebo effect is extremely benefical here as the patient then began to feel as though their health had been improved, which will have improved their sense of happiness and their day-to-day business can carry on as usual. Also, the placebo effect is beneficial as the patient felt as though they had been taken seriously by the doctor (I’m sure we have all experienced at some point going to a health professional and being shrugged off and left still feeling poorly, yet helpless lol!).  

Furthermore, placebo treatment has also provided astonishing results in more severe cases. Patients have believed that certain drugs given to them by health professionals have helped alleviate pain, depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory disorders and believe it or not… even cancer!!!

A real life example includes the case of cancer victim Mr. Wright, who had been given all the possible treatment for cancer and unfortunately was still in agonizing pain and bedridden. A placebo drug called Krebiozen was offered to Mr. Wright, who believed that the drug was a new anti-cancer treatment. Mr. Wright took the placebo and (even though his cancer had of course not disappeared) he showed a huge turn around and felt more positive about his chances of survival, his tumours had shrunk and he was diagnosed from the hospital a few days after taking the placebo.

In conclusion, I think the placebo effect is a positive thing if used appropriately. There is always going to be some sense of deceit with the placebo treatment (the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment obviously went waaaaaaay too over the top with deciving their participants) yet the effect would not be successful if the recipients were aware that the treatment wasn’t actually real. The results can be extremely beneficial to ones life style  so why hate it!?


8 thoughts on “Placebo Effect

  1. Bones says:

    Very interesting blog, I enjoyed reading it! I agree with you that the placebo effect is a good thing and can help many people. Obviously it is wrong to deceive participants however if participants are getting better simply because they believe they are taking a drug then this is beneficial. For example H. K Beecher evaluated 15 clinical trials concerned with different diseases and found that 35% of 1,082 patients were satisfactorily relieved by a placebo alone ( However this is only concerning the placebo effect in more medical terms but in psychology it also helps to see the difference in behaviour between groups when one administers the actual drug and the other administers a placebo drug. For example Henderson found that when studying the effects of alcohol the placebo group (who didn’t actually drink anything alcoholic) showed signs of acting drunk. (

  2. statsscrutiny says:

    I think this was a really thought provoking entry. I must however disagree with you that I do not think the ends justify the means when it comes to the placebo effect. Whilst it is perfectly obvious that the placebo effect is significant in many cases at treating many ailments (, this does not mean that it is ethically acceptable to do so. The huge amount of deception that is involved means that the participant is oblivious to the fact they are being given a placebo. This couold lead them to feel more healthy than they are and then to take unnecersary risks. It is inexcusable to put a person thorough this deception, just because sometimes it can make some people’s condition improve. The fact remains that the individual is still sick, and should be given the most effective treatment that has a known effectiveness in a more conventional way. Then they can be informed as to what treatment they are getting and can give proper informed consent as to whether or not they want this treatment.

  3. rgjblog says:

    A problem with using placebos within research is that it could be argued to go against at least three main ethics principles. One of these is beneficence and non-maleficence. This is where research should contribute to societal good, it should provide immediate help and shouldn’t be harmful and most importantly if it came down to who outweighs who, an individuals well-being should outweigh societies. Using a placebo contradicts this, how can not giving a participant, who may recover or receive the most health benefits from taking the real drug in the study, putting the individual first? It’s not, it’s putting the research that may eventually benefit society first.

    It also doesn’t follow the other ethical principle of Justice. This is where everyone has the right to access and benefit from the research, so in this case the drug that is thought to have a positive effect. If half the amount of participants were put into the placebo treatment and the other half into a real drug treatment, half of the participants are not benefiting from the most effective treatment.

    Finally some people say it goes against Integrity which basically states that deception has to be the last resort, or absolutely necessary. This ethical principle is a hard one for psychological or medical research as most research has to use some amount of deception to gain any results, otherwise demand characteristics and social desirability affects may be an issue and affect the data.
    Here is a useful link:
    So I agree with your statement that the placebo effect should only be tested out on a participant, if all other options have been tried first.

    It has been argued that the way researchers give out the drugs may course the participant to guess whether they have been given a real drug or a placebo. Some argue that as the drug research, is often funded by the drug company; the researcher may show results that support what the drug company wants. A way of preventing this from happening and to show the true effects of a placebo is to conduct a double blind experiment. This is where, neither the researcher, or the participant knows which drug treatment they are getting. By using a double blind technique it also gets round the issue of Justice as no one decides who will be receiving the potentially positive drug, so no biases are made. All the participant’s will be told is that they will be randomly allocated to receive one of the two drugs.
    Here is a link for an article on antidepressants and placebos, which I thought was interesting:

  4. tinastakeon says:

    I’m really pleased with this blog, Bruce Lipton’s book “The Biology of Belief” discusses how positive belief can be an incredible healing factor in many medical conditions. Although it may seem like pseudo-science, Dr Lipton is actually a PHd biologist, who came to some incredible discoveries on what occurs on a cellular level.

    Here is an excerpt from his book:

    I believe that the placebo effect is very real, but as with all things “unscientific” it really does rely on the power of the mind (or belief) of the individual.

    I’m sure that there are many avenues to explore when it comes to the power of the mind, because after all, that’s what we really want to know about isn’t it. The mindfulness course is extremely effective, ok, it seems to be, having spoken to people who’ve taken part, it cetainly made a difference to them in their lives

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