Many will have heard of placebos and how they impact on human emotions – but nocebos are less well-known. The “placebo effect” is a proven occurrence in medical trials where patients show distinct signs of responding well to medication even though their treatment is completely inert (containing non-active ingredients). Patients psychologically respond in a positive fashion because they believe the tablets are working. The “nocebo effect” is equally well studied. It demonstrates that patients respond negatively to treatment and develop damaging side effects because they believe these outcomes are inevitable. Scientists are convinced that both are mental responses – not justified by physical reality.
Such tricks of the mind are not confined to medicine and a broader understanding of their impacts should definitely prevail. Advertisers have long understood the perils of nocebos. Their focus is solely on the attractive message their products can portray and the beneficial results that can be achieved. They promote the placebo attributes continuously. In fact, the whole aim of marketing is to accentuate the positive – sometimes mischievously. Whereas the notion of nocebos is alien to marketeers – it’s simply not on their agenda.
This dichotomy also extends to other common features of everyday life. It translates as an irrational fear of some circumstances and an unreasonable acceptance of others. Many people express an open fear of taking risks; offering up examples to demonstrate this like, public speaking; meeting new people; taking the lead; roller coasters and heights; spiders and snakes; investing in stock markets – and the list goes on. While many others see these activities in a completely different light. They have a much more relaxed attitude to risky situations and wonder what all the fuss is about.
It is useful to know (or try to work out) where you stand on these issues because it will temper your responses. The newswires are currently dominated by events in Ukraine and rightly so – it’s a big humanitarian disaster. But the news feeds impact individuals in very different ways. Some see it as a time to promote sympathetic responses and offer financial help. Others see it as an opportunity to profit personally from hardship in a cold-blooded calculated way.
In our inter-connected modern world, the various news channels and the extensive social-media circus exacerbate the placebo and nocebo effects. Our reactions are often unreasonable and irrational. We repeatedly respond along well-worn lines following the narrative of our preferred news outlets. We feel good for no logical reason and we worry about stuff that we really should ignore. This is the dilemma that we face in trying to grapple with day-to–day events in our lives.
Regardless of our beliefs and allegiances, placebos and nocebos are affecting all of us constantly. Realising that our responses might be ill-judged reactions is a decent appreciation of the true position. The real world is made up of distinct, disjointed events not conforming, synchronised patterns. Therefore, the models used to foresee these events are quite often out of touch. Nocebos really do matter!!