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Placebos Can Ease Stress – Even When People Know They're Placebos

Placebos Can Ease Stress – Even When People Know They’re Placebos

Placebo interventions have been shown to be a cost-effective way to manage a variety of disorders and symptoms. However, an important ethical issue prevents their widespread use: The common belief that for placebos to work, the patients needs to be deceived into thinking they are taking an active treatment.

Now in a new study, researchers from Michigan State University (MSU), University of Michigan and Dartmouth College have shown that placebos reduce brain markers of emotional distress even when people know they are taking one.

The findings show that even if people are aware that their treatment is not “real” — known as nondeceptive placebos — believing that it can heal can lead to changes in how the brain reacts to emotional information.

The findings offer initial support that nondeceptive placebos are not simply a product of response bias — or telling the patients what they want to hear — but that they represent genuine psychobiological effects, say the researchers.

“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,?” said Dr. Darwin Guevarra, MSU postdoctoral fellow and the study’s lead author. “These results raise that possibility.”

The new study tested how effective nondeceptive placebos are for reducing emotional brain activity.

“Placebos are all about ‘mind over matter,” said Dr. Jason Moser, co-author of the study and 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.”

To test  the effects of nondeceptive placebos, the research team showed two separate groups of people a series of emotional images across two experiments. The nondeceptive placebo group members read about placebo effects and were asked to inhale a saline solution nasal spray. The participants were told that the nasal spray was a placebo that contained no active ingredients but that it would help reduce their negative feelings if they believed it would.

The comparison control group members also inhaled the same saline solution spray, but were told that the spray improved the clarity of the physiological readings the researchers were recording.

The first experiment showed that the nondeceptive placebos reduced the participants’ self-reported emotional distress. Importantly, the second experiment showed that nondeceptive placebos reduced electrical brain activity reflecting how much distress someone feels about emotional events, and the reduction in emotional brain activity occurred within just a couple of 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,” said Dr. Ethan Kross, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology and management at the University of Michigan.

The research team is already following up on their data with a real-life nondeceptive placebo trial for COVID-19 stress.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: Michigan State University



Placebos Can Ease Stress – Even When People Know They’re Placebos

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Placebos Can Ease Stress – Even When People Know They’re Placebos. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Aug 2020 (Originally: 9 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Aug 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.