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What Is the Placebo Effect?



Updated June 13, 2014

Definition: The placebo effect is the measurable, observable, or perceived improvement in a health condition that is not attributable to an actual medical treatment. A placebo, as used in research, is an inactive substance or procedure used as a control.

When a patient is given a known inactive substance (e.g., sugar pill, distilled water, or saline solution) rather than a substance or device having true medical value, they may improve merely because their expectation to do so is strong. To eliminate the effect of positive thinking on clinical trials, researchers often run double-blind, placebo-controlled studies.

The word placebo literally means "I will please" in Latin. The first known double-blind placebo-controlled trial was done in 1907. The FDA doesn't require that a drug study include a placebo control group, however, placebo-controlled trials have long been the standard.


Placebo Effect, Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic's Dictionary, Skepdic.com

The Mysterious Placebo Effect, by Carol Hart, American Chemical Society

Modern Drug Discovery, July/August 1999

The Healing Power of Placebos, by Tamar Nordenberg, FDA Consumer magazine January-February 2000

Also Known As: placebo, placebo response, power of suggestion

Common Misspellings: plasebo, placebo affect

Examples: The patient thought she was feeling better, but was it real or the placebo effect?

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