Placebos can have a powerful effect even if they’re not a secret

Brittany A. Roston - Aug 6, 2020, 2:23 pm CDT
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Placebos can have a powerful effect even if they’re not a secret

The potential for placebos — ‘medications’ that don’t have an active ingredient, that is — is well-known, though the exact reasons for their effectiveness remains a mystery. Generally speaking, a placebo is kept a secret; the idea is that if the recipient knows they’re receiving a sugar pill or some other faux intervention, the positive effects will disappear. A new study suggests that is not the case, however, finding ‘powerful’ effects even in cases where the placebo is known to the recipient.

A non-deceptive placebo refers to a placebo the recipient has been made aware of — one that, according to a study from Michigan State University, may still work to drastically ease one’s sense of distress. The findings highlight the power of the mind in bringing about change, though the limits of this aren’t yet certain.

The researchers set out to study how effective nondeceptive placebos are in reducing emotional activity in the participants’ brains. To do this, the study involved splitting participants up into two different groups and showing each a batch of ’emotional images.’ As well, one of the groups was given a non-deceptive placebo in the form of a saline nasal spray.

That placebo group was well aware of the fact that they weren’t receiving an actual medication — they were told that it was a placebo and that it could help them reduce their negative emotions if they had the belief that it would help them in this way. The results were surprising.

Despite knowing that the nasal spray didn’t contain any active ingredients, the group given the non-deceptive placebo reported feeling fewer negative emotions…and this was reflected in their electrical brain activity, which was reduced. This reduction was observed ‘within just a couple of seconds,’ according to the study, indicating that placebos are, in fact, an interesting and potentially effective way to help some without side effects.

The study’s lead author Darwin Guevarra, an MSU postdoctoral fellow, said:

Just think: What if someone took a side-effect-free sugar pill twice a day after going through a short convincing video on the power of placebos and experienced reduced stress as a result? These results raise that possibility.


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