Subject: Placebo Effect – Anesthesiology in World War II
Event: Henry Beecher’s birthday, 1904
While serving as an anesthesiologist in Europe during World War II, Henry Beecher — born on this day in 1904 — made an observation that changed the way we see both medicine and human cognition. Beecher observed that soldiers who were scheduled to return home felt less pain than soldiers who were not returning home. Also, when he ran out of the pain killer morphine, Beecher replaced it with a saline solution but told the wounded soldiers that it was morphine. About half of the soldiers who received the saline reported that their pain was relieved.
Beecher’s observation led to what today we call the placebo effect, which tells us that we cannot discount the important role that the mind plays in any medical issue experienced by the body. In other words, any expectation of medical treatment plays a part in the healing process.
Even today we don’t know exactly how placebos work, but neuroscientists believed that the mere expectation of treatment releases natural chemicals that mimic the actual effects of drugs on the body. Drug companies use placebos when testing the effectiveness of their drugs. They give one control group the drug and another a sugar pill placebo. Doing this they can compare results to see what positive effects result from the drug beyond just the placebo effect (1).
The British marketing guru Rory Sutherland discusses the power of the placebo effect in economics in his book Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business and Life. When marketing a pain reliever, for example, Sutherland says it’s all about “the packaging and the promise.” A brand name pain reliever is more effective; similarly, the more narrowly defined the condition, the more effective. For example, a drug that is labeled as targeting “back pain” will be more effective than a more general pain reliever. Studies show that even the color, shape, or taste of medicine can impact its effectiveness; for example, the most effective color for a painkiller is red (2).
The basic moral of the placebo effect story is the power of the human mind and the power of great expectations to promote a positive mindset.
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the placebo effect, and what does it tell us about the power of the human mind?
Challenge: Pushing Your Placebo Buttons: A 2004 story in The New York Times reported on signs mounted at New York City intersections that read, “To Cross Street, Push Button, Wait for Walk Signal.” The question is, does the button actually work to speed up the changing of the “Don’t Walk” sign to “Walk”? The NY Times article reports that 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons “function essentially as mechanical placebos . . . .” Do some research on placebo buttons in your town. Are the buttons at your hometown’s intersections placebos? You might also check out the “Close Door” buttons in elevators. Do they really work, or are they there just to give riders a false sense of empowerment? (3).
1-Perry, Susan. “The Power of the Placebo.” BrainFacts.org 31 May 2012.
2-Sutherland, Rory. The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business and Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.
3-Luo, Michael. “For Exercise in New York Futility, Push Button. “ The New York Times 27 Feb. 2004.