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Placebo as Healer: Legitimate or Sham

Updated on January 1, 2017

At the beginning of the assigned video, "Placebo: Cracking the Code" it is asserted that the "placebo effect challenges the foundation of modern medicine." Why is this the case? Why is the concept of the placebo effect particularly important and relevant to the field of health psychology? Finally, what ethical issues are involved with the use of the placebo as a pain control treatment in research and in actual clinical treatment? In effect, is a doctor who prescribes a sugar pill (even if it works) to lessen symptoms harming a patient? What do you think of the use of the placebo?

According to Health Psychology (2015) the placebo effect is “the medically beneficial impact of an inert treatment”; in other words a treatment that effects the patient not because of its own nature, but instead because of its therapeutic value (Taylor, 2015, p. 321). The Placebo: Cracking the Code video states that the "placebo effect challenges the foundation of modern medicine"; this is the case as it proves that certain treatments are not effective because of their nature, but rather the patient’s belief in their effectiveness. If the therapeutic value alone is enough to have an effect on the patient then it would be difficult to prove whether or not there was actually any value to the procedure itself. Health Psychology is a “field devoted to understanding psychological influences on how people stay healthy, why they become ill, and how they respond when they do get ill” (Taylor, 2015, p. 3). The fact that health psychology is a field that is devoted to understanding psychological influences with regards to health, makes the placebo effect particularly important and relevant to the field of health psychology as it is based on the notion that belief alone is enough to cure or alleviate symptoms. The placebo effect presents the idea of the mind being able to control the body when the patient has a strong enough belief of the outcome that will occur.

The placebo effect is also subject to a wide range of ethical issues when the effect is used to control or treat pain in research and in actual clinical treatment. In research the ethical issues are more limited because while the research subject might not know everything about the study, they do agree to their participation in the study. The main ethical issue with this is the fact that the research subject wants the treatment be effective and they want to make the researchers happy; researchers also want the study to be a success so they are more likely to rate the results higher than they should (Novella, 2008). The best way to avoid this ethical issue is to make all research studies double-blind studies; meaning that neither the subject nor the researchers know which subject has the real drug and which has the placebo. In actual clinical treatments there are even more ethical issues because the patient who is suffering from pain is being given a sugar pill without their knowledge of taking part in a research study or innovative treatment method. This could lead to the patient suffering for longer than necessary and possible legal ramifications. I believe that the placebo effect is real and that the mind can in fact affect the body; however I also believe that the placebo treatments should only be used on people who agree to try a treatment that is more innovative or holistic. The patient should not be told that the pills are sugar pills, but they should be informed that the pills are not their normal medication. The patient should also have to sign off on the treatment, which would reduce legal problems if the patient is informed that they were/are taking sugar pills.


Novella, S (2008). The Placebo Effect. Science Based Medicine. Retrieved From

Taylor, S. (2015). Health Psychology (9th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.


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