Despite a recent dubious claim that placebos don't require deception (critiqued here), placebos appear to function on the basis that a subject believes X will have effect Y. Without knowing too much detail, we say that the subject's mind/body will assist or attempt to achieve Y upon the perception that X causes Y.

Can a person, without self-deception [1] and with knowledge of the placebo effect, induce a placebo response? Or can a person knowledgeable of the placebo effect induce the same "reactions" that a placebo can normally be used to induce?

Consider a silly example.

Persons A and B each have a headache. They are told that balancing a spoon on one's nose eliminates headaches with very high success rates by conducting electricity via the sinuses. Person A believes the claim. Person A balances a spoon on their nose, and their headache is eliminated.

Person B, having a background in medicine, doesn't believe it at all. Person B, to prove the point, balances the spoon on their nose and remains in pain.

At this point, is there any way for Person B to "simply decide" that this ritual, which he knows to be an attempt at a placebo, to start working?

Would there be a difference using a pill instead of something purely ritualistic?

[1] self-deception. [for the purpose of this question,] any mental activity in the general category of suspending one's "participation" in the full body knowledge they normally possess.

  • $\begingroup$ suggestion itself can cause a placebo effect. By suggestions I mean what the subject is expecting from the procedure. Even if not informed at all, due to cultural commonalities a western control subject will assume that he is given "something" that will make him feel better of whatever he might or might not have. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2014 at 4:06
  • $\begingroup$ @julianfernandez Can the subject, without self-deception, self-suggest? E.g., Can the subject simply decide, knowing that they're attempting to "invoke" a placebo effect, efficaciously say, "This chocolate chip cookie will make my cold go away?" $\endgroup$
    – svidgen
    Mar 20, 2014 at 4:30
  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure to understand what you are suggesting (I mean, if you think that rational thought is the main source of our behavior), but they way I see it is more like a reflex. Like many optical illusions, even if you know what is the trick, you still cannot stop perceiving them. To me the ideal control subject would be one that doesn't even know he is being part of an experiment (or, at least, one dumb enough to not have any expectations from it). $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2014 at 5:21
  • $\begingroup$ @svidgen What, to you, is the difference between self-suggestion[ of a belief] and self-deception? $\endgroup$
    – BenCole
    Mar 21, 2014 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @BenCole Interesting ... So, the answer seems to be yes; so long as Person B can "expect" the result, regardless of whether they believe that the ritual works in and of itself. (For my next question ... What the devil is expectation anyway!?) $\endgroup$
    – svidgen
    Mar 21, 2014 at 21:37

2 Answers 2


Not an answer, because I couldn't find any studies, but too long for a comment:

  1. Placebos aren't arbitrary. You are not given chocolate chips as a placebo treatment for a cold. The placebeo has the form of a "real" treatment for the illness or disorder, e.g. a pill without an agent.

    This means that in your experiment your subjects must treat themselves with what looks like a real treatment but isn't. It must look like it could work.

  2. Placebos are not administered without the knowledge of the sick person, e.g. while that person sleeps. Placebos are administered in what is effectively a ritual: you go visit an expert, the expert speaks some magic words (the latin names of your organs and illness), the expert gives you a magic potion (the sugar pill), and touches you and transfers some of his or her power to you. Well, of course he doesn't, but the similarity between religious and magic rituals and what a doctor does are striking and have been studied by ethnologists.

    This means that in your experiment your subjects must explicitly treat themselves and not just eat breakfast and decide after the fact that one of those chocolate chips was the placebo. They need to plan how, with what, and when they want to treat themselves, and then administer the treatment in the way it was designed.

If, in this way, you consider what a placebo actually is – a ritualised administration of a faux treatment – it becomes immediatly apparent that this treament contains several psychologically powerful elements that must certainly have some kind of effect.

  • $\begingroup$ Is this a reply to julian fernandez his comment? If so just write a short summary as a comment there, possibly several comments. This does not seem relevant to the OP at all. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Mar 21, 2014 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ I'd give you all the upvotes if I could - this may not be directly relevant to the question being asked, but it's excellent accompanying information. It also opens up an interesting subject - the role of ritual in activating the placebo response (i.e. belief/perception), especially in 'primitive' societies/cultures. The OP might find the answer to his question researching that subject. $\endgroup$
    – BenCole
    Mar 21, 2014 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @BenCole If you search on Google scholar, there are some texts dealing with modern medicine and its relation to magical rituals or shamanism. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Mar 21, 2014 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @StevenJeuris It is more a hint on how to think about the question in the absence of research. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Mar 21, 2014 at 19:25

It has been shown that even if you tell a patient this pill is placebo and it's not going to help you, there's still some positive effect. It's all about perception.

There was a really good TED talk with the topic "Is there scientific proof we can heal ourselves?" at TEDxAmericanRiviera presented by Lissa Rankin, MD.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to cogsci.SE! This looks like a very useful answer, but the Stack Exchange community prefers that they be somewhat more self-contained. I.e., this would be even more useful if you could tell us a little bit about the content included in these links (e.g., in case they close down someday, or a reader can't play videos while at work, using the mobile SE app, or because Flash Player is a hassle to update in Firefox). Any chance we could trouble you to tell us a little more about what you've found? $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2014 at 17:45

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