Is Pharma Responsible for the Rise in the Placebo Effect?

PlaceboBy Guy Mastrion

An article in a recent issue of WIRED cited statistics that the placebo effect is twice as strong as it used to be.

Is it really, I wondered? I guessed not. I guessed that there was a good reason for it. And I came up with a couple of possibilities.

First possibility. What if we just measure it better and better? Everybody’s heard of it, in these sophisticated times. Researchers must be incredibly attuned to it.

I’ll buy that. That might be why.

Second possibility. What if the increase is because drug development is focusing on conditions that are not directly killers – what some people call “lifestyle” drugs – and less on the immediately life-or-death conditions? It might be more profitable to treat depression than brain cancer. And I’m not a doctor, but I’d bet it’s a lot easier to see a placebo effect with the former than the latter. So perhaps the issue is that the treatments being developed lend themselves better to the placebo effect.

This seems even more likely to me.

I believe that, to a certain degree, the more we use our brains, the stronger they get. And I further believe that what we tell ourselves has an enormous effect on us. I’m not one of those “think yourself well” people, don’t get me wrong. But I do believe that the interplay between thoughts and actions and biological responses is much more complex than our cheery bromides might make us think. I do think that if we act and think and believe something strongly, it can work biologically within us. And hell, even if you disagree with me – doing that, in conjunction with treatment, sure can’t hurt.

So I wonder – how much is the state of our health influenced by the observer effect and self-diagnosis? Decades ago nobody talked about attention deficit or erectile dysfunction or bipolar disorder. But now, like I said, we’re sophisticated. I’m sure you know someone who’s never been diagnosed by a professional, but walks around announcing to the world that they have ADD. I’m not saying they do or don’t. My point is that they’ve decided that they have. That can be great and can result in their taking positive decisions that improve their lives and their health. But it could also do the opposite.

As people who help to provide online health information, how much is that our worry and our responsibility? We’re just putting more information out there. Is that always healthy? Does it sometimes just give people more to freak out over? Can we do anything in our work to minimize that?

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2 Responses to Is Pharma Responsible for the Rise in the Placebo Effect?

  1. E says:

    Where is the proof for all of these theories? I am researching an article on the placebo effect and would like to discuss if it is increasing and possibly why. Are there scientific articles that your comment is based on? Wired did not indicate their sources either and I cannot find a reliable source for their statistics.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for your comment. As my post stated, the two possibilities I offer: 1. the placebo effect is better measured now; and 2. drug development is focusing on lifestyle, not lifesaving, drugs) are postulated based on my experiences – but you can see other published works with similar ideas here and here. Im sure in your research youve Googled “placebo effect measured” to read a wealth of articles, some more interesting and thoughtful than others of course. As for the Wired statistics specifically, you’ll probably be best contacting the author directly-it looks like Steve Silberman is available through his website and Twitter. Good luck with your research, and I’d love to hear more about it!