How to Use the Placebo Effect

Credible people can do incredible things.

Credibility is the major factor because it’s necessary to look/sound/behave in a plausible and expected way when you wish to leverage the placebo effect.

What is a placebo exactly?

“any therapy prescribed … for its therapeutic effect on a symptom or disease, but which is actually ineffective or not specifically effective for the symptom or disorder being treated” (Shapiro, 1997)

A more accessible description is given on this video:

In other words, a placebo is not just a pill – it’s a behaviour which should have no positive effect – and yet it does (under certain conditions for certain people). The study of placebos in healthcare is vital because it would be immensely useful to:

  1. tell which treatments are effective in and of themselves
  2. harness the therapeutic effects of the placebo

This second aim is very important because if we can find ways to use harmless substances and behaviours to create change. Given that placebos tend only to work sometimes for some people, what characterises those people and those instances?

The first significant factor is the method’s believability to the person being ‘treated’. If the placebo itself is credible (for example, an injection is more credible than a pill) then the person who receives it will expect a positive effect. Expectancy is a colossal psychological lever and it can be boosted by using (for example) ‘active’ placebos – those substances where an effect can be felt (that is actually irrelevant to the treatment) which is taken to mean that the substance is ‘working’.

Second is the method’s believability to the person administering the placebo. If the person who is administering the placebo believes in its effectiveness their language, behaviour and attitude will give the recipient confidence that it works and creates additional expectancy of success.

Third, the credibility/trustworthiness of the person administering the placebo is important. Can you believe them when they say that if you follow their instructions, the desired change will take place? Congruency, a history of trust, plausibility of rationale and authority cues can contribute to credibility. Also, honesty cues (such as acting against one’s apparent self-interest) can be useful here too.

Finally, the presence of psychological short-cuts, such as Cialdini factors (like Authority and Consensus) or specially tailored convincers is also going to boost the effect. For more about this aspect, see my 3-part video series on Convincers and Influence. Convincers also boost expectancy considerably.

When you add up all these factors, the placebo effect will work on more people more of the time.

That is how credible people can do incredible things.

Comments are welcome below…