Health inSite: Placebo, by any other name, is just as effective?

The Placebo App

A review of a year and a half of Health inSite research and how I think one group is probably more on target than some might think.

I’m going to start out by laying out a couple of concepts for review.

Placebos and psychology

A placebo is defined as “a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient.”  This causes what is called the placebo effect.  A patient is said to have experienced a placebo effect when the intended deception manifests experienced results.  While the research indicates that there is a small range of people that are susceptible to the effect, that range hovers at around 30% of the population.


One might ask, “How is it possible that the effects of a non-drug could be experienced as having the results of an actual drug that has the intended, or actual, impact on a patient?”  This is explained as the product of self-fulfilling prophesy, or a form of expectation bias.  If you recall the previous posting on Thinking Fast and Slow, one of the difficulties we face as human beings is both our difficulty in matching up experience and memory, as well as overcoming biases that tint our understanding of rational data.  In a word, we are not always rational beings and sometimes our understanding of an experience or idea is subject to our memory and cognitive constructs that allow us to think fast.  We respond the way that our mind has told our body it expected to experience the event.  The concept, “Where your mind goes, the energy goes,” has been mentioned extensively by my colleague Dr. Mines in his series on Psychology of Performance, beginning with his first posting.

Hysteria (or mass psychogenic illness)

If you happened to miss the events in Le Roy, NY, where 18 people experienced Tourette’s-like symptoms for an extended period of time, there were many that identified the cause of the experience of these individuals as mass psychogenic illness.  Mass psychogenic illness has been largely attributed to situations in which individuals are experiencing similar physical effects (tics, for example) without any clear physical reasons (e.g., environmental toxins, viral or biological triggers, etc.).  Historically, this has been referred to as mass hysteria.  The complexity of the condition has led many to write it off, but the core assumptions of mass psychogenic illness are sound given what we know about social influence.  Oftentimes in mass psychogenic illness, an index case is discovered in which someone’s conversion disorder acts as a catalyst to the development and spread of the illness through the network.

Assuming that this is the way in which mass psychogenic illness works, index cases could be used to induce behavior change in a network towards a positive outcome. In this way, it is not mass psychogenic illness, but mass psychogenic salutogenesis (widespread generation of health through the influence of the mind over the body within the social structure of a network).

CBT and treatment adherence

Critical to adherence to any health maintenance or treatment protocol plan is the ritualizing of new behavior.  In the chemical dependency field, we’ve known this for a long time.  By creating new routines that positively impact our behavior; we are able to more easily overcome the many triggers that previously caused our substance use.

Triggers are defined in the substance abuse field as events, emotions, or thoughts that trigger the addiction response.  They are a major focus in many treatment protocols and are especially important for recognition in the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) model.  The goal in CBT is to identify why it is that we respond to thoughts, emotions, and events and then to develop, for ourselves with the help of a therapist, ways to counter the effect of those triggers.  In this way, it’s not the abolition or avoidance of triggers so much as a rational understanding of the trigger and building tools to overcome that trigger’s effect on the coached patient/client.

Network theory, social comparison, and braggadocian behavior

If you’ve read all of the links to other blog postings in the Health inSite category, but missed the posting on braggadocian behavior, the concept is very simply that social media has enabled us to engage in bragging around the things that we are doing and that this activity can influence the way that others perceive us – and we do this to intentionally accomplish that change in perception.  This gives us the ability to influence the way that others behave as they engage in responses which may include trying to match our behavior (wittingly or unwittingly)  or rejection of our behavior as a method of coping with one’s own deficiency in the category of behavior being expressed.  This has a powerful impact on the social network in which agents operate as they can directly and indirectly influence the behaviors of individuals that are proximally or distally connected to them.

In their book ConnectedChristakis and Fowler explore the significant effects that our social network has on our health and health behaviors.  Social networks, of course, are not just websites like Facebook or Twitter, but all forms of interaction that we have with various people in our lives, including our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even the people at the grocery store.  The power of individuals to have an effect across a network based on their location within the network is a clear and well-documented reality.

Suspension of disbelief

As I mentioned in an earlier blog posting on the fourth and fifth wall, suspension of disbelief is critical to the effectiveness of theater.  Without the audience allowing suspension of disbelief, a presentation falls flat in its ability to engage the audience emotionally.  Think back to a PowerPoint presentation that was particularly awful because the speaker failed to actively paint a picture that the audience could connect with.  Similarly, engagement strategies are starting to use these concepts to create thick tapestries of story that immerse the audience in the story-line, and even sometimes ask them to co-create the story, as in the case of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries spin-off series, Welcome to Sanditon.

New technology

Recently, an IndieGoGo campaign was started for a new project that would create a placebo app.  You might think to yourself, “How the heck could a placebo app affect someone’s health?”  The app, which leverages the power of mirror neuron activity and the placebo effect by creating positive thought-feelings in the brain, could actually override the systems in the brain that cause us to act irrationally in terms of triggers and cognitive biases by leveraging suspension of disbelief.  Further, the app allows individuals to interact with their social network around their use of the placebo app, creating a unique opportunity for mass psychogenic salutogenesis.  Now all we need are some index cases to start the process toward a tipping point.

It will be interesting to see the resulting data from this project as we would expect that there is a real opportunity for this to be leveraged to significant effect, not only for those directly accessing the placebo app, but also those that end up interacting with those users.  But the rest of the story is still to come.

Whew, that was quite a round-up of research, huh?  Comment or send questions!

For more…

…check out a G+ Hangout from HuffPost on placebos and their effect.

Ryan Lucas
Supervisor, Marketing
To stay ahead on topics related to this, follow me on Twitter @dz45tr


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