How A Fake Treatment Could Actually Work?

Let’s say you went to a restaurant and ordered a dish. Once you have done chewing, munching and swallowing most of the food, you have a strong feeling that an upset tummy might be lurking just around the corner. After  a couple of hours, your stomach really does start hurting and you decide to visit the doctor. The Doc gives you a pill explaining how the pill would show its effect in 10- 15 minutes.

15 minutes have passed from when you took the pill and you realize how much better you feel already! This story sounds like a common case of food poisoning and you have probably  been in this situation multiple times. However, what if I told you that the pill that was prescribed by the doctor, was not a stomach upset pill but a simple vitamin pill that has nothing to do with treating or curing your stomach pain? Though the medicine had nothing to do with your stomach upset, you felt better within minutes. What’s really happening here?

In a real scenario, a General Practitioner perhaps wouldn’t have given you a vitamin pill. But this case is an example which tells us, how many psychologists have adopted this idea of inducing a placebo effect. 

In the above situation, you probably didn’t have a stomach ache in the first place. Yes, you were feeling physical discomfort, but this could be because you were expecting a stomach ache. The discomfort you were experiencing could have been purely psychological.

Research suggests that this happens because of the dopamine released in your brain when you believe that a treatment is going to have a positive outcome. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, whose release is associated with feelings of pleasure.

So what is the placebo effect?

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a placebo- a fake treatment, like an inactive substance like sugar, saline solution or even distilled water can improve a patient’s condition just because the patient expected the treatment to work.

Psychiatrists often rely on this treatment when a patient claims to be suffering from a specific disorder but has no evidence or symptoms of the same. The placebo treatment has been used by psychologists to treat sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

Placebos also have physiological responses such as increased blood pressure, pulse rate and improved reaction speeds, however in a study,  participants had an opposite physiological effect when they were told that they had taken a sleep-inducing drug.

People who receive a placebo may also have a negative effect. If they have an expectation that the placebo they received would have negative effect on their health, they start to experience nausea, constipation and diarrhea. A negative placebo effect is called a nocebo effect. 

We all might have experienced the placebo effect at some point in our lives and we probably have no clue about it. The placebo effect is a very interesting phenomenon and is widely used in research by many psychologists to study how expectations can directly affect behavior and how it can make a difference, either positive or negative in our well being.



Free Image on Pixabay – Pills, Prescription, Bottle. (2018). Retrieved 13 March 2018, from (Featured image)

Definition of Placebo effect. (2018). MedicineNet. Retrieved 13 March 2018, from

McKay, S. (2018). This is your brain on placebo effects – Your Brain HealthYour Brain Health. Retrieved 13 March 2018, from


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