The power of placebos

When I was growing up, we went to an expensive Homeopathic doctor when I had issues with longer term ailments. It started with a bout of bronchitis that I had as a baby. His pills helped cure it in 6 months.

We restricted visits due to a rather expensive price tag of 500 rupees per month per treatment (translated to $8-$10 in the 1990s which was unusually expensive in India). But, we ended up visiting him once a year or so for the most challenging, often chronic, problems. While the usual issue was wheezing/breathing difficulties, there were some special cases like an ulcer that refused to go away. In all of these cases, his sugary pills seemed to solve the problem.

At some point in the last decade, I dug deeper into the science behind homeopathy and was shocked to realize it was mostly just a placebo effect.

“Just” a placebo.

I thought about that today as I listened to a powerful chapter on placebos in Rory Sutherland’s excellent book, Alchemy. One of the interesting ideas he shares is that the most important role placebos play is tricking our immune system into getting to work. Since our immune system was built for much harsher conditions, most pills (think: Tylenos) and visits to the GP’s office may be most effective because of the placebo effect that enables us to hack our immune response.

Placebos are powerful.

PS: I’ve stopped linking to Alchemy on Amazon as I’ve already shared notes from the book twice. It is one of the books of the decade in my opinion. I’m making slow progress through the book and attempting to digest the insights. So, more notes to follow in the coming days.