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Placebo Effect Can Work as Psychological Intervention

Placebo effects are no longer just about sugar pills as a medical treatment — placebos can also work when psychological effects are attributed to them.

Psychologists from the University of Basel in Switzerland reported these findings in the journal Scientific Reports, based on three studies with over 400 participants.

Psychotherapy and placebos are both psychological interventions that not only have comparable effects, but that are also based on very similar mechanisms. Both forms of treatment are heavily influenced by the relationship between patients and those treating them, as well as by the expectations of recovery.

Whereas placebo research mostly focuses on a biomedical model —an inert pill is provided with a medical rationale, which produces a corresponding effect — little is known about the effect of placebos provided with a psychological rationale.

Researchers discovered placebos can also have effects when specific psychological effects are attributed to them.

In three independent experiments with 421 healthy participants, investigators discovered the accompanying explanation or narrative played a key role when a placebo intervention was delivered. And the relationship between the researchers and the participants influence the effectiveness of the placebo.

The researchers used the color green as the placebo in the video experiments, examining it both with and without a psychological narrative (“green is calming because it activates early conditioned emotional schemata”), as well as in the context of a neutral or a friendly relationship.

After viewing the videos, the participants assessed their subjective condition with questionnaires over several days. The results showed that the placebo had a positive effect on the participants’ well-being when it was prescribed together with a psychological narrative and in the context of a friendly relationship.

The observed effect was strongest after administering the placebo but remained evident for up to one week.

“The observed effects were comparable with those of psychotherapeutic interventions in the same populations,” said principal investigator Professor Jens Gaab.

The fact that psychological placebos can have significant effects is not only important for understanding psychological interventions: “It challenges both research and clinical practice to address these mechanisms and effects, as well as their ethical implications.”

Source: University of Basel/EurekAlert

Placebo Effect Can Work as Psychological Intervention

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). Placebo Effect Can Work as Psychological Intervention. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Feb 2019 (Originally: 7 Feb 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Feb 2019
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