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Definition of the Placebo Effect in Medicine Essay

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Updated: May 5th, 2020


A placebo is an inert substance that is administered to medical patients as a form of disease management. Some patients may experience positive changes in their ailment owing to administration of the placebo. It is presumed that because disease is a combination of mental and physical factors, then the placebo plays into the psyche of the patient and causes positive results.

Placebo effect

Medical practitioners and researchers usually create the placebo effect by making the patients believe that they may be receiving treatment for their disease, yet this is not true. Thereafter, the practitioners will reinforce the effects by reassuring the subjects that they are already seeing positive improvements in the patient’s conditions. Expectancy and false feedback combine to create improved outcomes in the patient’s health (Colagiuri & Boakes, 2009)

Price et. al. (2008) explain that the placebo effect is not just a response bias. It emanates from emotional changes in the patient. These, eventually, affect the patient’s neurological system and thus lead to noted changes in the patient’s body. Therefore, emotions play an important role.

Psychological factors may also be used to explain how body functions change. Sometimes classical conditioning occurs, thus affecting the body’s immunity, respiratory or even hormonal systems. These alterations are manifested as improvements in symptoms of the disease.

In medical research, placebos are used to demonstrate the effect of an intervention. These studies are often called randomised controlled trails. Andrews (2001) explains that placebos illustrate the usefulness of a new drug by comparing its effects with those that belong to randomized groups. If a drug has results that are weaker than the placebo, then the drug is labelled ineffective. Scholars argue that such drugs may have a mild effect on patients, but the result is not strong enough to overpower those that emanate from the placebo effect.

Consequently, the failed drug should not be made available to the public because a non-interventionist effect is more powerful. A lot of psychologists have carried out research on antidepressants and found that their effects are less effective than placebos. This has reduced use of the drugs in treatment of depression.

However, some ethical concerns exist concerning the use of placebos for drug-treatment research. By its very definition, placebos are inert, so they should create no psychological or biological change in the concerned individuals.

Therefore, medical practitioners who endorse such a strategy are using a non –scientific, hence an objectionable approach in medicine. Andrews (2001) explains that placebos should be used only when no other proven alternative exists in the market. Starting with the placebo when there are other options is unethical to this author and several others.

Additionally, problems also arise for researchers who carry out placebo-controlled trials. All scholars must get informed consent from subjects as long as they are human. This is an ethical prerogative that every one must abide by. However, telling participants about the consumption of a placebo could minimise its effects because they will already know that they are taking an inert substance.

Therefore, in order to meet this ethical standard while maintaining research blindness of the participants, most scholars tell all participants about the existence of a placebo (Colagiuri & Boakes, 2009). They also add that the participants have a 50-50 chance of belonging to a placebo group (control) or to the test group. As a result, the placebo effect will still arise as patients would peg on the hope of belonging to the test group.


The placebo effect is useful in medicine because it leads to positive outcomes; it eliminates ineffective drugs in the market and also creates positive outcomes in patients. However, researchers must address ethical concerns such as informed consent and availability of other alternatives when dealing with placebos.


Andrews, G. (2001). : Bane of research, boon to therapy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 178, 192-194. Web.

Colagiuri, B. & Boakes, R. (2010). : An experimental analysis. Psychopharmacology, 208(3), 433-441. Web.

Price, D., Finiss, D. & Benedetti, F. (2008). A comprehensive review of the placebo effect: Recent advances and current thought. The Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 565-590. Web.

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