"Here the are,” John Kelley said, taking a paper bag off his desk and pulling out a big amber pill bottle. Inside were the pills we’d designed: a magical concoction put together to treat my chronic writer’s block and the panic attacks and insomnia that have always come along with it.
I’ve known Kelley since we were undergrads together. Now he’s a psychology professor at Endicott College in Massachusetts and the deputy director of PiPS, Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter. It’s the first program in the world devoted to the interdisciplinary study of the placebo effect.
The term placebo refers to a dummy pill passed off as a genuine pharmaceutical or, more broadly, any sham treatment presented as a real one. By definition, a placebo is a deception, a lie. But doctors have been handing them out for centuries, and patients have been getting better, whether through the power of belief or suggestion—no one’s exactly sure. Even today, when the use of placebos is considered unethical by many medical professionals, a survey of 679 doctors showed that about half of them prescribe medications such as vitamins and over-the-counter painkillers primarily for their placebo value.
Interestingly, the PiPS researchers have discovered that placebos seem to work well even when a practitioner doesn’t try to trick a patient. These are called open label placebos, or placebo