Taking Advantage of the Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is well known for interfering with medical experiments. It’s not just that if you tell patients that a drug is going to have an effect they tend to believe it has had that effect. It’s that it tends to actually have that effect, when measured by objective measures such as blood tests. Thus the use of double-blindness in experiments, where not only the patients but also the doctors dealing with them have no idea whether they’ve been given the active drug or a placebo. Something about wishing really does make it so, somewhat, when it comes to health; the placebo effect is not just in patients’ minds but also in their bodies.

But besides the nuisances it causes to experimenters, the placebo effect can also be taken advantage of. Doctors sometimes prescribe drugs as placebos; since it genuinely helps the patients, it’s hard to argue with that practice. It’s deception, but in a good cause. (The deception had better not be too obvious, though, or it’ll do no good. Indeed, if the doctor himself believes in the placebo, that’s best.) Christian Scientists use nothing but the placebo effect. But what’s a skeptic to do, to get some of this goodness? If a doctor prescribes something for me, I’m going to look it up on the net and find out how it works; if it doesn’t, that’ll be apparent, and the fact that the doctor prescribed it will not impress me. As for faith healers, starting by insulting one’s own intelligence doesn’t seem like the way to proceed in harnessing the powers of the mind. So what to do?

I believe in the placebo effect directly. I cut out the middlemen, and the foolishness, and just take the thing straight. The placebo effect is going to help me because I know it will; because it is an established principle of medical science that it will if I believe it will; and I do so believe. Whatever boost my mind can give to my body, in getting better from whatever ailments might afflict me (not particularly much, at the moment), it’ll give.

(Update, June 3 2016: If it seems a bit odd to you that this effect can be gamed in such a way, you’ll be relieved to learn that it’s not all that powerful in the first place; most of what people call “the placebo effect” is just regression to the mean.)