The Placebo Effect Is Not a Reason to Buy Trash

We all swear by something that we know probably won’t work. Maybe it’s vitamin C when everyone at work has a cold, or #bootea while dieting , or compression socks while running. “Even if it doesn’t work, what’s the harm?” we tell ourselves. In truth, it’s not harmless, and we are only kidding ourselves.

Just because this pill or tea is not poisonous does not mean that it is harmless : you spent money, time and effort on it, effort that you could spend finding or using something that really helps. Worse, if you think it “works,” you can verify that it does. Many of us put our hopes and wallets into pseudo-medical treatments (or diets or exercise plans) that don’t work at all just because the placebo effect makes us think they work.

How strongly do you think that when you buy a pack of Emergen-C at the pharmacy? This is a personal decision, but I’m going to argue that it must be greater than zero. If you’re going to try something with an open mind that isn’t proven, you also need to be open-minded enough to admit to yourself that you might be better off without it.

The placebo effect is not as beneficial as you think

Long ago, researchers discovered that a pill or syringe containing no real medicine could relieve symptoms – sometimes almost as well as real ones. The discovery of the ” placebo effect ” has changed the way doctors evaluate drugs. Because patients can improve on a fake drug, drug trials can compare a new drug to a placebo , with the expectation that patients in both groups will improve. The drug shouldn’t just work; it should work better than a placebo .

So, if a placebo can make you feel better, why not use that effect and specifically take a fake medicine? After all, a sugar pill should be cheaper than the real medicine and shouldn’t cause serious side effects. If our mind can heal our body (or at least make us feel better), isn’t that a victory?

Unfortunately, this is not how the placebo “works.” While brain-body synergy may explain part of the placebo effect, much of it is based on factors that are not caused by placebo at all. In 1997, two German scientists analyzed an original 1955 paper that determined that the placebo effect was important for medicine. They found that most of the effect was not psychological, but caused by things that would have happened even without the fictitious drug. Many of them are also applicable in everyday life:

  • Over time, people naturally get better . For example, a trial of treating the common cold found that people improved within 6 days of taking a placebo. Since the common cold only lasts 7-10 days, and the worst symptoms last around three days , this was to be expected even without a placebo.
  • People take placebos when they feel better . In some studies, patients were given a placebo only when their condition was under control; if they had severe symptoms, they received real medication. In this trial, the placebo helped control the patients’ symptoms. You do the same if you treat mild symptoms with vitamins or homeopathy, but go to the doctor when things get serious.
  • A placebo may not be the only treatment. People testing the cold medicine were allowed to rest, take hot baths, and other things that could help them feel better. Likewise, if you drink slimming tea while dieting, your weight loss is likely diet-related, not tea-related.
  • Symptoms fluctuate. In trials, placebo gained acceptance when people got better, but researchers didn’t blame placebo when symptoms worsened. For example, in one study, 21 percent of stroke patients improved after taking a placebo, but 53 percent died. The researchers characterized the placebo as 21% “effective”. If you only notice the times when a potential treatment works for you, and conveniently forget about the times when it doesn’t work, this is a classic confirmation bias .

We are prone to errors like this when we evaluate our own experiences. If your muscles ache and you drink tart cherry juice and feel better the next day, you may decide that the juice is working for you, even if you would feel better with or without juice. Being a victim of cognitive biases does not mean that we are gullible or stupid; that means we are human.

Bottom Line: Trying something useless in the hope of profiting from the placebo effect is not a good strategy. Even if the placebo seems to “work,” it might not be doing you any good.

Waste of time, money and hope is not harmless

In 2012, people spent $ 6.4 billion on homeopathy, according to research firm Mintel . Remember, homeopathy is drug-free medicine and verifiable junk .

Meanwhile, vitamins and nutritional supplements bring in about $ 12 billion a year, according to TABS Analytics . Sports nutrition supplements are worth $ 2.6 billion. In other words, you can spend $ 25 on FitTea Detox , $ 75 on compression tights for running , $ 297 on a course on how to use a homeopathic medicine kit , $ 329 for a 7-day juice cleanse , $ 2,200 for a colored light that can fix your chakras and so on.

This stuff can get expensive. And there’s a continuum from the 21 cent Emergen-C package to the energy system that (not) cures cancer for $ 16,995 . You don’t buy it because it works; you buy it because you hope it works. The only difference between the two is what you can afford.

Of course, questionable remedies are worth more than money. They also take their time and hope. If you spend a few hours and some mental effort visiting a practitioner who cannot cure what is bothering you, that time you could spend visiting someone who practices evidence-based medicine .

You may be postponing seeking real help (or worse, real help at a time when it could be most effective), and you may not even be bothered if you think you’ve “tried everything” and your problem. does not respond to treatment.

It’s also worth thinking about your emotional well-being: if you are pinning your hopes on, you get frustrated when the treatment doesn’t work, it jerks you and it frustrates you. So, if you want to try the latest diet, pill, shake, or whatever they are challenging the smart one these days, check out its merits and potential demerits – even if it looks like it won’t do any harm.

Illustration by Angelica Alzona.


Leave a Reply