The Placebo Effect: what is it and does it really work?

Have you ever been to the doctor and been prescribed medicine for that aching back, that sore throat, or that pounding head. Did you feel better after taking those pills for a few days? Modern medicine sure is great. Everything is treatable now. Well it turns out that the medicine you were receiving may not have actually been doing anything, meaning that the reason you got better is because you willed yourself to get better.


Wait, what?

The experience you may have just had is called the “Placebo Effect.” A placebo is anything has more of a psychological effect than a physiological one. So, when this comes to medicine, this means that the pill you took to get rid of your headache may have just been a pill coated in sugar. It wasn’t that the sugar or the pill itself was doing anything special, but that it tricked your subconscious mind into making you feel better.

Has this always happened?

The first recorded instances of the placebo effect happening on patients came about in the 1700s. Interestingly, the more that science and medicine has advanced so to has the power of the placebo effect become stronger. A theory for this is because people have much more trust in the medical system now than they did 300 years ago, so people are more confident that whatever the doctor is doing will cure them. This confidence actually helps to trick your mind into making the body itself better.

So why can’t I just will myself better?

It turns out our subconscious is super powerful yet needs external stimuli in order to begin working. The way that scientists know this is because it turns out other animals are affected by the placebo effect just as much as humans. Scientists studied the effect on hamsters and saw that by making hamsters believe that it is winter time (less hours of sunlight in the lab amongst other things), the hamsters’ bodies reacted as if winter was indeed coming.


That’s why you can’t just say to your subconscious “alright buddy, time to get better!” It turns out the body needs some sort of external stimuli in order to begin making you feel better.

Placebos everywhere

There are many other areas in your day to day life which are actually placebos. One of the main places you may see a placebo is in an elevator.

You know that door close button that you frantically press to get you to your floor quicker? Well, it turns out that the vast majority of them don’t work. Manufacturers put them there because they know that people like to feel more in control of their lives, thus calming people down.


Another placebo button – the walk buttons at traffic lights. That’s right, the vast majority of them don’t actually do anything. They are put there to help relieve the stress caused by traffic.

Whether it’s that pill to cure your headache or that door close button on an elevator, it doesn’t really matter if anything is physically happening. All that matters is that your subconscious thinks it is and that your mind is put at ease.