Why does Placebo Effect take place?

By Vidushi Pandey

‘Your mind plays tricks on you’ is a commonly used phrase during conversations as mere humour but through extensive research, psychologists have begun to find credibility in this statement. A prominent example of this is the Placebo effect. 

A placebo is a medical treatment, substance, or procedure designed to have no therapeutic effect; it does not contain any active ingredients but often still produces a physical effect on the individual. Researchers have speculated that the placebo effect can be caused by two mechanisms namely classical conditioning and Response expectancy theory. 

Classical conditioning refers to learning through association when two unrelated stimuli are linked together to produce a learned response. For example, a dog naturally salivates at the sight of food but if the presentation of food is clubbed with ringing a bell at the time of presentation and is continued over a period of time, the dog would derive a relation between the sound of the bell and food. This would cause it to salivate even at the sound of the bell ringing without the presentation of food. Similarly,when a placebo drug is given to a patient, it acts as a stimulus that triggers the organ that produces an unconditioned response-release of a particular hormone, enzyme etc. that fulfills the function of the original drug. 

Another mechanism that plays an important role in the placebo effect is Response expectancy theory. It refers to the anticipation of automatic, subjective, and behavioral responses to particular situational cues. For example, a person may expect to feel more alert after drinking a cup of coffee, to feel less pain after taking pain medication, to feel intoxicated after drinking alcoholic beverages, and so on. In simple words, a person’s expectation plays a major role in controlling its body functions.

Interestingly, motor performance following ingestion of placebo caffeine is enhanced for some people and decreased for others, depending on the person’s belief about the effect of caffeine. This verifies the mediating role of response expectancy in the generation of placebo effects. 

Although it is not quite determined what causes the placebo effect, these two mechanisms, so far are the best theories. 

Image Credits: Vix.com

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