Many people have heard of The Placebo Effect. It is a remarkable medical phenomenon in which a placebo, an inactive substance, can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.
Skeptics in many fields cite “The Placebo Effect” to demolish evidence of good and benefit in fields where they have no knowledge or expertise. For example they would say that healing stones have no active properties, so can not possibly work. But empirical evidence is against them; so how do people feel better, or even recover? Well of course “That is the Placebo Effect!” comes back the smug reply.
Why do we need to know about The Placebo Effect?
In coaching, we often use whatever comes to hand to enable our clients to achieve their objectives; Milton Erickson would have called that utilization. By understanding what is happening with the placebo response we can better help the people we work with. What better reason can there be than that?
What the medical experts say
It has been shown in medically supervised tests that placebos have measurable physiological effects. For example, when participants are told they have taken a stimulant, the placebo tends to speed up pulse rate, increase blood pressure, and improve reaction speeds. Placebos have the opposite physiological effects when participants are told they have taken a sleep-producing drug.
Humans have the potential to respond to the suggestion of a healer or coach, or even a caring parent. A patient’s distress may be relieved by something simple like being told “You can feel it getting better”. A familiar example is Band-Aid put on a child. It can make the child feel better by its soothing effect, though there is no medical reason it should do anything.
Many experts question the use of cough medicines because clinical trials have not found that cough medicines are any better than a placebo or dummy treatment. However, there is a massive industry that manufactures, markets and sells cough treatments. Who is right and who is wrong? It depends on your point of view.
How do we use The Placebo Effect
After some careful and protracted analysis, I realized that as coaches, therapists and parents, we use the placebo effect frequently. Sometimes we use it consciously, like the Band-Aid on a child; we do not believe for a moment that there is any magic ingredient in a plaster. At other times without conscious thought, when we give good luck charms as presents.
We use metaphors to elicit desired states in people, and get them to imagine the outcome they want. Sometimes we make those metaphors link to actions or things in the real world, so they have some tangible artifact as their focus. Like my magic stones.
What Magic Stones?
Around my home and office I have a number of magic stones, which I sometimes refer to as healing stones. They are usually river rounded and smooth, and have been collected on my travels round the world, or from the local DIY store. Suitably washed and sterilized, they lie waiting for their moment in someones life.
If someone comes with a particularly intractable problem and needs a shift in focus, I ask them to select one stone out of a choice of three. I then tell them the story of that stone, and weave it into a metaphor, relating to their particular problem. By focusing on the stone, they allow the metaphor to get to work on their unconscious. Finally we layer in some positive emotional states, and anchor them in the feel of their chosen stone.
It works because we have something external to focus on while the metaphor is building in the mind of the subject. Instead of an internal dialogue about how this could not possibly have any positive effect, there is just concentration on the nice smooth stone. We have bypassed the critical faculty which gets in the way of progress.
When they leave, they take the stone with them as a quick and easy way to re-trigger the metaphor and their positive states.
These healing stones have worked for people quitting smoking, overcoming anger and lowering blood pressure. There are another group of magic stones which work for people with performance anxiety, interview nerves and fear of public speaking. Finally there is a special group of stones which help athletes, artist and musicians achieve their full potential.
Of course, we now know that it is the placebo effect at work. There can be no other explanation possible. Or is there?
What If The Placebo Effect is really something else
What if human beings were actually capable of doing and being more than current medical science and physics accept is possible.
Imagine that your vision could be improved by conscious will alone. Imagine that your hearing could be made more sensitive or discerning by your own actions. Imagine that if you took charge of your life that you could control pain, or the way you feel, or physiological factors like blood pressure, heart rate, or weight.
Maybe all that is needed is for someone to give us a sugar pill, or talisman, or magic stone and tell us that we are now healing. Maybe that is all we require to disregard the medical and scientific dogma and rhetoric; that we can only get better by the products of multinational pharmaceutical companies.
Maybe the placebo effect is just a name given to the visible part of the unfathomable depths of human potential.
The placebo effect is a medically demonstrable response by a subject to a suggestion that something is beneficial. The dialogue is between the expert, professional or parent and the subject’s unconscious. The placebo or magic stone is just a way to bypass the troublesome critical faculty. It exists, it works, and it is beneficial. We can ridicule it, ignore it or use it to benefit our clients. It is a matter of personal choice.
Just remember, there are more than a few people in the world who are still carrying a smoothly polished stone in their pocket!
Links about The Placebo Effect
Content updated December 2016, and May 2017.