Last week I posted my idea of what placebo drug warnings would look like. Placebos are pills with no active ingredients—they’re typically given to control groups, in clinical trials that are testing the efficacy of “real” drugs. But in several recent studies, placebos themselves have “performed as well as drugs that Americans spend millions on,” the New Yorker reported earlier this month. They help people feel better who are told the pills will help—it’s the power of positive thinking. A new institute at Harvard is exploring the idea that placebos might be given as medicine in clinical practice.
But there’s also the power of negative thinking. “Expecting a placebo to do harm or cause pain makes people sicker,” the New Yorker story noted. This is called the “nocebo effect.”