The Placebo Effect Works but do We Know How?


The placebo effect refers to the marked improvement of a patient who receives treatment with a substance that has no known medical effects, i.e. a placebo. Simply because the patient has the expectation the placebo will be helpful, they experience a positive change in their current medical condition. Placebos can include sugar pills, sterile water, or injections of saline solution.

At first glance, this may seem like an unprofessional, or even unethical, practice. But for most medical professionals, it’s actually quite the opposite. Placebos are an essential part of understanding the cultural and biological components attributed to health and healing.

As reported in The Wall Street Journal: Health and Wellness, patients respond differently to placebos based on several factors that are seemingly unrelated to their placebo treatment, such as their geographical location or the mode in which their placebo is administered.

According to numerous medical studies, several key factors that influence how a placebo works include:

  • Pill Color. The color of a tablet can influence the type of placebo effect it has: red, yellow, and orange induce a stimulant effect, while blue and green are associated with a tranquilizing effect
  • Placebo Methods. An injection invokes a greater placebo effect than a tablet. Two tablets work better than one, and capsules work better than tablets
  • Pill Size. The bigger the pill, regardless if it’s a tablet or capsule, the better
  • Patient Location. The placebo effect for gastric ulcers works better in Germany than it does in Brazil. For treating hypertension, the effect is lower in Germany than elsewhere.

While the exact mechanism by which placebos work is still currently unknown, numerous health advocates believe using placebos to treat illnesses is a pseudoscience that may be more harmful than good. Many doctors admit to regularly prescribing placebos, and advocates argue that by doing so, the correct diagnosis of a serious illness may be postponed.

However, the placebo effect has been measured in thousands of clinical trials over the years and the results of each trial has been compelling: the placebo effect works. While we’ve only scratched the surface of the “hows and whys” of the placebo effect, medical science still pushes for the use and study of placebos as a viable alternative to prescribing medications with potentially harmful side effects.



Reddy, Sumathi. “Do Placebos Actually Work?” The Wall Street Journal. 19 July 2016. D1. Print.

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