Placebo vs Nocebo – The Biggest Psychological Mystery

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A placebo is an inert substance or belief which produces real biological effects in humans. It’s so widely accepted as fact that a placebo variable is included in most medical tests as way of proving if, say, a drug works on its own merits or because people “think” it works.

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There are tons of experiments showing the proof of the placebo, but one of the most amusing to watch is a test done by a group of Princeton students who decided to throw a non-alcoholic keg party for their unsuspecting classmates.

The experimenters secretly filled a keg with O’Douls (contains about 0.4% alcohol while regular beer has around 5% alcohol) and then watched as their peers acted silly, slurred words, slept on the ground, and generally acted drunk.

Although it’s nearly impossible to get intoxicated on O’Douls, these college students had such a strong belief they were drinking standard beer that it affected their behavior.

Curiously, researchers have discovered the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger, and some drugs that have been on the market for years, such as Prozac, are now proving less effective than placebos.

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Naturally, this is a major issue for big pharmaceutical companies, which has left many scrambling to conduct neurological studies in an effort to come up with new ways to safeguard their industry from ordinary sugar pills. Incidentally, Big Pharma is currently more profitable than Big Oil, so there’s quite a bit at stake.

While placebos are generally associated with positive outcomes, like curing an illness or getting drunk on O’Douls and having fun (if you consider that positive), the nocebo effect produces negative results, such as a cancer patient vomiting before chemotherapy starts or someone breaking out in a rash because they thought they touched poison ivy, even though it was merely an ordinary plant.

One of the most talked about examples of the nocebo phenomenon was an incident published in “New Scientist.” According to the account, late one night an Alabama man, referred to as Vance, went to a cemetery and met up with a witch doctor who told Vance that he was going to die soon. Believing the witch doctor’s prediction, Vance soon fell ill and within a matter of weeks was emaciated and close to death.

Vance was taken to the hospital but the medical doctors could find nothing wrong with him. Finally, Vance’s wife told the physician, Dr. Doherty, about the encounter with the witch doctor, which gave the creative physician an idea.

The next day, Dr. Doherty told the couple he had tracked down the witch doctor and physically threatened him until the medicine man finally admitted he had put a lizard inside Vance that was eating him from the inside.

Of course, the Doctor’s story was completely fabricated, yet he made a big show of injecting the patient with a mysterious substance and snuck in a genuine, green lizard that he pretended to extract from Vance. The next day, Vance awoke alert, hungry, and it didn’t take long before he fully recovered.

Apparently, that story was corroborated by four other medical professionals, and is often cited when explaining why Voo Doo sometimes works (i.e. not because of magic, but because of the nocebo effect).

By S. Grant, List Verse and earthweareone.com

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