The Strangely Powerful Placebo

The nation’s drug-makers have spent billions of advertising dollars selling consumers on the idea that there’s a drug for everything that ails us. Turns out, they’ve found one: the placebo. For some reason, the placebo effect has gotten significantly stronger in American drug trials. In fact, unexpectedly strong placebo performance has sunk several high-profile drug tests. It’s got the pharmaceutical industry worried enough to fund a major study to identify the factors in rising placebo potency. Drug companies could be victims of their own success in this instance: we’ve become so convinced of the power of modern medicine, it works even when we’re off the pill. [%comments]

John Zabrenski

I believe in pacebos and take several every morning.


Since more expensive placebos have better placebo effect than cheaper, there is room for health-care reform to bollix the complaint that reform will destroy R+D advances. In fact, an X-Files deep conspiracy can start now, releasing a new "pancuronium" (I know Pancuronium is an existant drug, and it's too bad it's part of the lethal injection/euthanasia mixture, but what a great name for this product!) every, oh, three years, for more co-pay every time.


too bad the industry isn't worried about reducing cost- they have lobbied to block comparative outcomes testing, to be used in health care reform to circumnavigate expensive/useless treatments- in effect, the industry has already lobbied congress to accept that their drugs have placebo effects, so no need to research if they actually do anything

Jonathon K.

Drug companies have already made enough on the price of prescription medicine. Now imagine the markup they could have on colored sugar pills! (Although the barrier's to entry would be significantly lower, so that wouldn't last long!)


Placebos are a great cure for hypochondria.


I've always wondered how medicine could make use of the placebo effect when treating patients.

On the one hand, if doctor prescribed a placebo to a patient & the patient found out, the doctor would be in deep doody -regardless of whether the placebo effect resulted in a lessening of a patients symptoms.

On the other hand, if the Doctor said "I'm going to prescribe this placebo first to see how it works out", then there goes any possible benefit...


Oh my, wouldn't that be the ultimate in irony, Big Pharma shot down by sugar and their own marketing campaigns?


actually, if there were money in placebos, big pharma would be in the front of the line selling them. That is why the drug manufacturers got into the vitamin and homeopathic markets.


Maybe the placebo effect works better now because more people have b.s. psychosomatic symptoms in the first place.

Fake cures for fake ailments! Sounds like we should be looking for better diagnostic tools, to be sure there's really something there to cure.


It's not surprising placebos have gotten more effective as pharmaceutical marketing ramps up. Convince a healthy person that they're sick, and it's easier to convince them that they're well again.


I've often wondered about how I could use the placebo effect for benefit. I considered mixing in sugar pills with my regular drugs, so that I wouldn't know which one I was taking on any given day, but AFAIK, placebos that look identical to certain drugs are not available at the consumer level.


The whole alternative medicine juggernaut is based on the placebo effect. They make something like 5 trillion dollars a year!


I don't think a placebo is a good response to hypochondria. Better than giving real drugs, but you aren't really treating the problem.

Overstimulated townhallgoer

Keep big government away from my fake medicine!


Placebos often work better than prescribed drugs (Prozac? Works as well as a placebo. But costs a lot more.) A whole lot of Western medicine also appears to be based on the placebo effect too.

Your mind is absolutely what will get you sick, and get you well. If you can convince yourself that your cholesterol is getting lower, it will. Your body will attempt to follow the instructions you give it. Just tell yourself that you are "well enough, and healthy enough, and gosh darn it, people like you." (with apologies to Stuart Smalley/Al Franken)/


A possible reason for the increase in the placebo effect is the increasing quality of research design. Over the past several years, in scientific research, there have been significant movements concerning research quality. Editors of peer-reviewed journals expect a certain set of aspects to be reported, and so researchers increasingly have to comply in order to get published. Consort standards ("Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials") would be the most obvious example. Grant funding has also sought improved study design, as have institutional review boards. With an increase in the quality of a study design, lowered portions of chance/random effects and placebo effects get attributed to the intervention of interest.


The article portrays drug trial stories from Merck and Lilly. Both have documented court case evidence of suppressing and faking outcomes in R&D. LikeBernie Madoff's investment success, the fraudulent aspect of these endeavors explains a lot of the apparent success - once the fraud comes to light.


I suggest the following guideline for drug testings. We should have three groups: the first will take the drug, the second will take placebos and the third will take nothing.

Maybe the placebo effect is just another proof that our body is the most important factor in cure.

Yet Another Dan

Ask your doctor about Placebolite. Side effects may include drowsiness, wakefulness, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, unclogged arteries, and erections that last more or less than four hours.


From what I understand the placebo effect drops off over time whereas a true drug will sustain efficacy. Is this correct? I really don't put too much faith in placebos from my personal experience. 1) If street drugs cause mental changes why wouldn't medical drugs? 2) Street drugs will cause effects you don't expect as will medical drugs--if it were a placebo that should not happen.