evolutionary psych

Thoughts on the Placebo Effect

Responding to the latest episode of Russ Roberts’ Econtalk.

Tweet thread starting here:

THREAD. @econtalker Lots of thoughts on this week’s episode on the Placebo Effect and the interview with Gary Greenberg. First, why would something like the Placebo Effect evolve in the human species? 1/12— Tim DeRoche (@timderoche) February 5, 2019

If your body has the ability to heal itself, why would it hold that power in reserve… until a particular type of social interaction triggers the healing response. 2/12

And it is indeed a *social* phenomenon. The patient interacts with another person in a particular way, and then suddenly an ailment begins to wane. As Greenberg says, “The ritual is very very important to the outcome.” 3/12

In the evolutionary environment, they didn’t have hospitals or doctors or trial-tested drugs. So the most likely “ritual” would have occurred between an ailing person and a relative or a shaman of some sort. 4/12

Most of the remedies would likely have been completely bogus or weak, especially relative to current remedies. What would have been the value of the Placebo Effect in that environment? Is it a variation of the Hawthorne Effect? 5/12

We have to assume that good doctors – consciously or unconsciously – make use of the Placebo Effect all the time. 6/12

Do MDs get any training in how to use the Placebo Effect to improve their patients’ health and quality of life? My guess is no, but I’d be pleased to learn otherwise. 7/12

If there was training, you’d want the MDs to understand: (1) In what domains is the Placebo Effect most effective?, (2) What are the ritualistic triggers that enhance the effect?, and (3) In what cases would use of a Placebo put the patient’s health at significant risk? 8/12

If you wanted to cut health care costs (anyone?), wouldn’t greater use of the Placebo Effect be a *huge* tool in the toolbox? Sugar pills barely cost anything. And don’t have any side effects. 9/12

What if – at the bottom of every standard form in the doctor’s office – there was an opt-out box you could check, “I do not grant my doctors permission to administer placebo treatments in order to enhance my health.” 10/12

Assuming that most people would not check the box, doctors would then have the right to administer placebos to most patients, especially in domains where the Placebo Effect is powerful and the risk to the patient is low. 11/12

You’d avoid a lot of unnecessary interventions and empower the patients to heal themselves. (Again, training the MDs would be absolutely critical.) 12/12

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Ingredients of the Primordial Soup…

Here’s where I’m coming from:

(1) completed English major at a liberal arts college (Pomona College)

(2) trained as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company

(3) studied psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics at UCLA in preparation for a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience that I never completed

(4) Completed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program

(5) Well-read (but incompletely self-educated) in evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, and macroeconomics

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I also have a fair bit of training in film-making and storytelling, including a certificate in screenwriting from UCLA Extension and completion of the PBS Producers Workshop.  I mention this only because my understanding of storytelling has informed my understanding of human psych, perhaps even more than my 2 years studying cognitive neuroscience!

More about this later….

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