The Real Life Placebo Effect

First off, what is the placebo effect? “A remarkable phenomenon in which a placebo — a fake treatment, an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution — can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.” (Medicine Net, 2016) The placebo effect if one of the few times humans can actually see how strong the power of the mind is. Often times we hear about the power of belief, and positive thinking, and with this strange ability of the brain, we see the power of belief really come to life. Many patients who have been convinced they were suffering from major illnesses were given placebos (or fake treatments) and astonishingly their condition began to improve, even though no real medicine or treatment was administered. So there’s no doubt that the placebo effect is alive and well in the medical world, but what about in the rest of life? The placebo effect is not limited to illnesses and medicine, but rather can be present in a number of different life situations.

One study carried out by University of Victoria in New Zealand tested to see how students would act if they were given drinks they were told had alcohol in them. Students were split into two groups, one was told that they were receiving plain tonic water, and the other was told they were getting tonic and vodka. In reality, both groups were being served just tonic. Results found that the students that received the drinks that were believed to have alcohol in them began to display signs of slight intoxication. “The ‘vodka and tonic’ students acted drunk, some even showing physical signs of intoxication,” (Seema Assefi, 2003) “It showed that even thinking you’ve been drinking affects your behaviour” (Dr. Garry, 2003) This is a clear example of how easily this effect works. In this case, the placebo was the tonic water, though students thought there was alcohol in it. Many students were shocked to find out there had been no alcohol at all, “insisting that they had felt drunk at the time” This goes to show how persuasive the brain, and the power of suggestion can really be.

Interestingly enough, the placebo effect has an opposite side too. It’s referred to as the “Nocebo Effect”. In this case, one experiences negative symptoms based on the power of suggestion. Stranger yet, if someone truly believes that a medicine or treatment will not help them, often times it will not, or their condition will seem to worsen. Many people believe that one can make themselves sick just based on the power of thought alone. In one study, researchers gave two separate groups sugar pills, but warned one of them about nasty side effects that came along with this ‘new drug’ they were believed to be taking. The participants had no idea that the pills were sugar pills, and the results showed that despite both groups taking the same pill, the ones who were told about experiencing these negative symptoms, actually began to display them. “Those treated with nothing more than placebos often report fatigue, vomiting, muscle weakness, colds, ringing in the ears, taste disturbances, memory disturbances, and other symptoms that shouldn’t result from a sugar pill.” (Lissa Rankin M.D., 2013)

Though these are just a few examples, they show how easily the placebo effect can become active. Whether it’s medicine or alcohol related , or perhaps just a suggestive thought that slips into your mind, these things can truly take hold and become a powerful influence on your actions and feelings. So next time you feel sick, or tired, or perhaps a little more drunk then you should be, ask yourself, is it all in your head?

Lissa Rankin M.D., 2013

Seems Assefi, Dr. Garry, 2003

One a quick side note, there’s a really good episode of the twilight zone that dives into the placebo effect. I’m not sure if the twilight zone is relevant anymore, but my wonderful parents cultured me at a young age, and though this episode was created in the new series of the twilight zone from the 2000’s, and not from the original classics, it’s still a really good watch. It follows the story of a hypochondriac who believes he’s picked up a deadly space disease from a novel he read, in which the characters also had this disease. It soon becomes clear that just by the power of his beliefs, he becomes drastically ill. The episode is called ‘The placebo effect’, and is entertaining at the very least, but provides a good example of how quickly this can work, even though it’s a bit far fetched. (The Placebo Effect, Rod Sterling, Brent V. Friedman)


3 thoughts on “The Real Life Placebo Effect

  1. Great article! Thanks for sharing. I remember watching a Bill Nye segment on this effect and being fascinated with how “fake alcohol” affected people.
    To take this one step further I found there is also considerable evidence for a compensatory effect for individuals who think they will be receiving alcoholic drinks. This effect essentially means that their brains will prepare for the impairments in cognition that come along with alcohol intake. Thus, when no alcohol is ingested the person will actually perform better on tasks than they would if they had not ingested the placebo. The compensatory response has made them more aware of their surroundings, better control, and improved performance.

    Testa, M., Fillmore, M. T., Norris, J., Abbey, A., Curtin, J. J., Leonard, K. E., … Hayman, L. W. (2006). Understanding alcohol expectancy effects: Revisiting the placebo condition. Alcohol Clinical and Experimental Research, 30(2), . Retrieved from


  2. The nocebo effect is even more spectacular than the placebo effect, in my opinion. The idea that a drug that is proven to work can be prevented from doing so simply from believing it won’t is truly fascinating. Even something completely benign can cause discomfort when an individual is told it will. Colloca & Miller (2011) give an example where an patient was told an electrical current was passing through their head, when in reality it was a sham radio frequency. The patient reported discomfort and head pain, even though there was no stimulus introduced to cause such responses. The nocebo effect has drastic implications for clinical practices that involve the use of drugs to treat illnesses, and the power of suggestion cannot be understated in this environment (Colloca & Miller 2011).


    – Colloca, L. & Miller, F. G. (2011). The nocebo effect and its relevance for clinical practice. Psychosomatic medicine. 73, 598-603.


  3. I’d like to contrast the nocebo effect with positive affirmations. Positive affirmations can be operationalized ideally as a positive mental state reinforced with positive self talk. In the case of combating a disease with medication, negative self talk would lead to the nocebo effect. Positive affirmation, on the other hand, can lead to decreasing amounts of physiological and mental stress. This experience, mediated by positive affirmations, is very similar to the placebo effect. Though I find it interesting that an individual is capable of influencing a physiological response with just two cognitive factors: positivity and consistency.


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