The effect of psychological placebos: The University of Basel studies

A graphic of the word placebo.
© iStock/marekuliasz

Placebo effects occur in medical treatment, but there can also be psychological placebos. The University of Basel’s psychologists have reported the effects of these placebos after carrying out three studies.

What is a psychological placebo?

According to the University of Basel, psychotherapy and placebos are considered psychological interventions with comparable effects, based on similar mechanisms. Both forms of treatment are influenced by the relationship between the patient and person treating them, as well as expectations of recovery. The University of Basel points out that placebos are usually researched using a biomedical model, for example where a pill which is inert has an effect on a patient due to the medical rationale given for the pill. However, there is relatively little known about the effect of placebos which are given a psychological rationale instead of a medical one.

The researchers concluded that placebos with specific psychological effects attributed to them also have an effect. They said that their accompanying explanation played a key role in dispensing the placebos, as well as the relationship between the researchers and the participants.

Psychological placebos in action

The researchers used the color green as a placebo in their video experiments. They examined the use of the colour green both with and without a psychological narrative (“green is calming because it activates early conditioned emotional schemata”). They also tested it within the context of a neutral or a friendly relationship.  Their results showed that the placebo had a positive effect on the participants’ well-being when the psychological narrative was applied in the context of a friendly relationship.

The implications of the three studies

The principal investigator, Professor Jens Gaab, said: “The observed effects were comparable with those of psychotherapeutic interventions in the same populations…It challenges both research and clinical practice to address these mechanisms and effects, as well as their ethical implications.”

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