Josh Pitzalis

White coats turn sugar pills in medicine

Because of the history of the placebo, it’s considered unethical for a doctor to prescribe a sugar pill and tell you that it’s medicine, even if it’s been proven again and again that this is the best way to treat many ailments.

Unethical, apparently, because it’s not a ‘real’ drug, and the thought is that if doctors prescribe drugs that aren’t real, we won’t trust them as much. Which, perversely, might decrease the placebo effect that accompanies all treatments prescribed by doctors.

Given that half the efficacy of a pill is due to the placebo, isn’t it worth considering that it might be unethical to not do everything in our power to amplify this effect?

I’ll go one step further.

In addition to the placebo, there’s the real issue of the ‘nocebo,’ which is of course precisely the opposite. This occurs when we talk ourselves into feeling worse, enjoying it less, or generally wasting an opportunity for improvement.

One study discovered that patients actually have worse outcomes when doctors go to great lengths to get ‘informed consent’ by listing every possible side effect.

Telling someone that there’s a small chance that they will have insomnia actually increases the chance they will have insomnia.

If labels and pricing persuade us that wine tastes better and white coats make sugar pills work, how can we not pay more attention to the stories we package stuff in?


Found these ideas in an ebook about the placebo effect by Seth Godin