Cured By Trickery

Question: What are the benefits of placebos?

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Dan Ariely:     One of the ethical dilemmas that I’m very interested in is the question of placebos. We’ve done research showing that when you give people a painkiller, and you tell them it’s expensive, it works better than if you tell them it’s cheap. And it turns out that placebos are real.

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So here’s what happened. You imagine that the medication is real, you get an injection from a physician and your body starts secreting Opiates. So you’re getting pain relief. You’re getting real physiological pain relief, but it’s coming from in your body rather than outside of your body. So this is a notion in which our beliefs about the world change our physiology.

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And now here is the dilemma: should we start prescribing more placebos in medicine?

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Should we lie to people more frequently? Because if we told people this is a placebo, it wouldn’t work. So we actually have to lie to them. But when we lie to them, it also works. So imagine that you have a virus, and you go to your physician and the physician knows it’s a virus. And he knows that antibiotics are not going to help. In fact, giving you antibiotics is going to get the mutation of the virus. It’s really bad for everybody. Should a physician start giving you sugar pill and say, “This is the best thing against this. This is a new thing. It’s from Merck. It’s the new thing coming from it and it’s the best thing against this infection you have"?

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It’s a curious dilemma because doing so will actually help you. So who is really suffering here? It’s clearly not true. But it’s clearly incredibly devastating.

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Recorded on: July 29, 2009.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely tackles the moral dilemma of administering placebos in medicine.

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