The Secret Life of Placebos

by Staff, Utne Reader
September-October 2010
Add to My MSN

Stuart Bradford /

Content Tools

Related Content

Can We Hold Israel Accountable?

Americans are in a unique position to influence what happens in Israel and Palestine.

Getting Drunk Off Non-Alcoholic Drinks

People don’t need alcohol to get drunk. The organizers of the “Expectancy Challenge” can prove it us...

Pronouns Are the Window to the Soul

The smallest words in our vocabulary may reveal the most about us, from honesty levels to health sta...

Could You Go a Whole Day Without Email?

In light of US Cellular’s new policy of email-free Fridays, Lifehacker asks its readers if they coul...

Recent studies prove that prescribing pills that don’t contain any drugs can be as effective as the real thing—assuming that, in most cases, patients don’t know they’re swallowing fakes. This begs a number of questions, including whether doctors can capitalize on this placebo effect without lying.

On the one hand, “it seems sensible to make every effort to enlist the body’s own ability to heal itself—which is what, at bottom, placebos seem to do,” Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow writes in the Boston Globe (May 9, 2010). But how would a doctor honor the principle of informed consent? * One tack would be to notify patients that they’re being given a fake pill. Humans can learn on a subconscious level to respond to certain stimuli, like Pavlov’s dogs, Tuhus-Dubrow points out, so our brains could react to the placebo without conscious faith in the drug.

Placebos could also be integrated with real treatments. In one successful study, actual drugs were combined with placebo “reinforcements.” Says one of the study’s authors, “If [doctors] can produce approximately the same therapeutic effect with less drug, then it’s obviously safer for the patient, and I can’t believe they wouldn’t want to look into doing this.” 

Post a comment below.


Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!