Placebos are powerful!!!

A recent study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics reviewed the effects of a placebo (sugar pill) on children who already take medication for ADHD, to see if giving them a placebo would reduce their need for medication. Basically, they divided patients into three groups and monitored them for 2 months:

  1. Continue regular medication for the whole 2 months (control group).
  2. Regular medication for 1 month, then drop the dose in half for 1 month.
  3. Same as #2, but add a placebo pill when the regular pill is cut in half.

As expected, group 1 reported doing fine (remained stable for the 2 months) and group 2 reported getting worse when their dose was cut in half. Funny enough, Group 3 actually reported remaining stable, like group one, even though their medications were cut in half.

But here’s where it gets interesting:  the researchers actually told the parents and the children that the placebo was a placebo, that there was no medication in it. Nonetheless, they were able to cut their medications in half just with the addition of a placebo, even when they knew it had no medication in it. Just goes to show the power of the placebo, and that its effect can be preset even when people know they are tricking themselves. Which begs the question, why not just use placebos? 

First of all, believing you are better is not the same as being better. While you may be able to convince yourself (and even researchers) of this for 4 weeks, sustaining this for the long term is not likely. Secondly, there are better ways to believe in yourself then by taking a pill. If we are capable of boosting our confidence and convincing ourselves we can do something, I would personally rather achieve this through direct, honest means, such as coaching or therapy. This is likely to be more effective than the false and fleeting assurance of a fake pill. Obtaining that false assurance—while slightly helpful—becomes more harmful in the end if it leads a patient to not work as hard on genuine, lasting and more meaningful gains.

Citation:  Sandler AD, et al. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2010;31:369-375.