The Placebo Effect

biology, social scienceJohn Gordon, Content DeveloperMar 27, 2020

The placebo effect makes a big difference in how you feel—for better and for worse

The Science Museum of Minnesota’s Weighing the Evidence exhibit is all about learning how to make smart and effective decisions around healthcare and medicine. To help break this sometimes-complicated process into simple chunks, David Gillette of Twin Cities Public Television and I created a series of short videos for the exhibit (David did all the work and I stood nearby and occasionally said, “Looks good!”).

These subjects are especially relevant today as we face a new threat to our health in COVID-19, and as we learn about new—and sometimes not-yet tested—treatments.

This video is about the placebo effect. You’ve probably heard about the placebo effect before, but it might be more complicated—and interesting—than you thought.

The short explanation of the placebo effect is that you feel how you expect to feel. So if you are given medicine for a condition, you might start feeling better because you expected to feel better, even if the medicine was fake! And the type of medicine—a pill, a colored pill, or a shot—can make a difference in how strong the effect is. It goes the other way, too: if you expect to feel sick, you may feel more sick than you would otherwise!

Scientists are still learning about how the placebo effect works, how we can take advantage of it, and how we can avoid making mistakes because of it. Check out the video, and keep the placebo effect in mind as you’re bombarded with news of potential treatments for—and symptoms of—a COVID-19 infection.