Dartmouth study reveals what people really think about placebos

The placebo effect, or the phenomenon of people feeling better while taking a fake drug just because they think they’re taking a real drug, has been proven time and time again.

Now, a groundbreaking new collaborative study has taken the placebo effect a step further, and come to some surprising conclusions.

Researchers from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Dartmouth College have found that placebos can help people feel better emotionally – even when they know they’re taking a placebo. It doesn’t matter if a patient knows all they’re taking is a sugar pill with no real medical benefits, if that person believes the sugar pill will help them, then it will.

The original placebo effect is predicated on deception; usually, people given placebos are under the impression they’re taking real medication. For this study, though, researchers flat out told participants they would be taking placebos. Even then, the placebos still lowered stress and emotional distress levels among participants, both consciously and neurologically.

How did this happen? It all came down to whether or not they believed the placebo would help them. Initially, participants were given some reading materials on the placebo effect in general. This served to create the inclination in their minds that placebos have helped people in the past. Then, study subjects were asked to inhale a placebo saline solution nasal spray while viewing a series of “emotional images.”

Right off the bat participants were told the nasal spray offered no real medicinal benefits, but they were also told that the nasal spray would still help reduce the occurrence of “negative feelings” evoked due to the emotional images if they believed it would.

This occurred over two experiments. One measured self-reported feelings of emotional distress and another analyzed brain activity while participants watched the emotional images.

“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?”, says lead study author Darwin Guevarra, MSU postdoctoral fellow, in a release. “These results raise that possibility.”

A second, control group of participants also took part in these experiments, but these subjects weren’t told anything about placebos or their benefits before receiving the nasal spray and looking at the images. Instead, these participants were told the spray was simply being used to help refine researchers’ physiological readings during the experiment.

Across both experiments, participants in the non-deceptive placebo experimental group felt much better while looking at the images. Not only did these participants self-report lower feelings of emotional distress, but their brain readings also displayed reduced electrical activity relating to distress in response to emotional events. Moreover, these drops in electrical brain activity took effect within seconds.

“These findings provide initial support that nondeceptive placebos are not merely a product of response bias – telling the experimenter what they want to hear — but represent genuine psychobiological effects,” explains study co-author Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Michigan.

The human mind houses numerous untold secrets yet to be discovered by modern science. This research goes to show just how much power our minds have over our bodies, and how much power our thoughts have over our minds. 

“Placebos are all about ‘mind over matter,” concludes study co-author Jason Moser, a professor of psychology at MSU. “Nondeceptive placebos were born so that you could possibly use them in routine practice. So rather than prescribing a host of medications to help a patient, you could give them a placebo, tell them it can help them and chances are — if they believe it can, then it will.”

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Communications.