The Placebo Effect: Why We Trust False Authorities

Health 2023

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The Placebo Effect: Why We Trust False Authorities
The Placebo Effect: Why We Trust False Authorities

Video: The Placebo Effect: Why We Trust False Authorities

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Video: The power of the placebo effect - Emma Bryce 2023, January
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Each new wave of pseudo-expert scandals like Elena Kornilova, about whom we recently wrote, leads to a collective groan: well, how could you have such a story? Why do hundreds, thousands, millions of people follow untested methods and trust people without special education? The pseudoguru did not appear yesterday: before Instagram there was LiveJournal, and before the Internet, there was a TV, where people “charged” cans of water under the dictation of Kashpirovsky and Chumak. There were destructive cults even earlier, and after Instagram something new will surely appear. At the same time, there was no evidence base for homeopathy, acupuncture, osteopathy, cosmoenergetics or Ayurveda - but they have many followers, and the fact that all this helps someone makes the picture even more complicated. Ekaterina Sigitova figured out what external factors and mechanisms of our own psyche lead to blind trust in authorities.

Text: Ekaterina Sigitova, psychiatrist and psychotherapist

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Background factors

Regardless of which particular "expert" is broadcasting now, there are factors in society that contribute to their credibility. In particular, in Russia it is the low quality of medical care and communication with doctors. Of course, we are talking about a complex area: the issue of the effectiveness and safety of treatment, diagnosis and prevention is still so shaky that the official recommendations for some diseases may change every ten to fifteen years. In addition, this area is strongly influenced by mental processes and subjective sensations - and some patients, even after the best treatment, will be disappointed or dissatisfied.

Unfortunately, in Russia we can talk about the poor theoretical and practical training of many doctors, as well as about their unrealistic expectations from patients and themselves. Doctor-patient communication, if any at all, on the part of doctors and medical personnel is too often hurtful and unacceptable, damaging and instills in people a fear of all doctors in the formal medical system in general.

Another important external factor is the general situation in the country, society and families, that is, how hard life is for people. Remember the famous joke about the curse "May you live in an era of change"? We, who live in the post-USSR, have not crawled out of such an era for thirty years. In a situation of long uncertainty, people panic and look for at least some kind of support, but, unfortunately, often find something that floats on the surface. The surge in the activity of healers, charlatans, fortune-tellers and sects in the nineties is not an accident. As a rule, such outbursts occur in the first years after serious crises at the level of an entire country, when fraudsters of all stripes react to anxiety that has appeared in society. Of course, there are not scammers among them, but those who sincerely believe in their method or idea.

The personality of the guru

All successful gurus (both pseudo and not) have a specific way of dealing with people. For alternative medicine workers such as homeopaths or osteopaths (in the United States, osteopaths are licensed doctors who are solely responsible for their actions. - Approx. ed.), it is usually positive - they are very supportive, they listen well to the person for a long time, ask many detailed questions, and maintain eye contact when they meet. This is what we all sorely lack at an appointment with an ordinary doctor. It is important for people to feel heard, to experience the benevolent attention and participation of the one who helps and heals - this alone reduces anxiety and can help in recovery or solving a problem. So the contrast with official medicine is striking here - and not in favor of the latter.

The faith of the “specialist” in his method also plays an important role. This belief has been proven to work in the case of a placebo as well as a real working method or drug.When the person who gives the patient a recommendation or drug believes in their effect (or creates such an impression), the likelihood that the method will work is higher. The same is true with the belief in the effect of a potential patient or client: the stronger it is, the more likely a positive result is.

In official medicine, in order to remove this factor, they use the method of double-blind studies - when neither the patient nor the doctor knows which pill contains the medicine and which placebo. But charlatans and pseudo gurus do not need to clean anything - on the contrary, it helps them. Therefore, as a rule, questionable methods begin with a treatment of a potential client or patient, in which the "expert" convincingly tells how his method is good for him, his family and friends. The goal is to create a person's confidence in a method or substance, and perhaps this trust alone is enough to develop an effect.

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Marketing strategy

Proper marketing alone increases the likelihood that the methods and “drugs” will bring about some real change. Even the way in which something is received or assigned can in itself enhance the effect. For example, many people use a variety of "detoxifying" techniques. There is no evidence that the human body produces toxins and that they need to be disposed of, because the body is a self-cleaning system. But the "cleanse" and "detox" industry is collecting huge numbers of followers and money from them - and those followers really do feel better.

The effect can be based on three mechanisms. Firstly, fasting or taking some substances that remove "toxins" exhaust the body, and people feel pretty bad. When this ends and everything is back to normal, the brain releases endorphins - hormones of wellness and happiness. It is easy for our psyche to link this as a cause and an effect ("detoxification helped"). Secondly, it happens that a person eats so poorly and erratically that a short fasting gives a long-awaited rest to his gastrointestinal tract and improves well-being. The third mechanism is chemical reactions in the intestines. What people take to "cleanse" is often scary at the end, so it is easy to believe that it is the "toxins" that have left the body.

There are studies that show acupuncture works better for anxiety than placebo, suggesting that the treatment method is "real." But there have been other studies in which doctors simply stuck needles anywhere in the patient's body at random, pretending to be a system - and the effect on reducing anxiety was comparable to the effect of visiting a doctor with an acupuncture diploma. According to scientists, the effect was triggered because people felt that they were "doing something."

Inner critic

If we cannot influence the personality of the pseudo-guru and the situation in the country, then we can work with our own peculiarities. Among such features is the so-called Inner Critic (the exact author of this term is difficult to trace; the concept of a rigid superego was introduced by Sigmund Freud about a hundred years ago, and after him hundreds of famous psychologists and psychotherapists were engaged in research)… The family system and parental figures plant their philosophy, vision of the world and way of treating everything in our heads - a kind of imprinting takes place. As a result, in adulthood, we may seem inexplicably authoritative and professional person, very similar to our authorities from childhood, even if they were angry, rude, rude and offended us. If a pseudo guru has a negative or aggressive manner of communication, then this comes into resonance with the figure of the Inner Critic in the head of many people - and there is a kind of validation of rudeness and rudeness as an indicator of the qualifications and experience of a guru.

This also works in the opposite direction: those who were doing well in childhood, who received a lot of support and guardianship from their parents and were sure that their parents would always understand and protect them, and they expect attention, understanding and kindness from the gurus first of all. And they are drawn to "adapt" to those who broadcast it, giving them power and decision-making.

Enhancing the placebo effect

People with chronic diseases can live longer than people without them: the need for constant monitoring of their health helps to effectively engage in prevention, change their lifestyle to a healthier one, and get treatment on time. So with placebo methods - they are often accompanied by complex recommendations, which include quite rational ways: to pay attention to your condition, remove bad habits, change your diet, move more - all this in itself reduces symptoms.

In addition, the treatment regimen can be complicated: in the morning you need to take seven blue pills, at lunchtime three reds and two greens (and if you get up from your left leg, then another yellow one), and for dinner ten whites and be sure to drink exactly 200 ml of pure water. At the same time, the brain's resource for critical analysis simply does not remain - everything is spent on controlling the circuit, and there is also a pleasant feeling of active participation in one's own health.

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Personal beliefs

There is a cognitive distortion mechanism in our psyche. How do people believe, for example, socionic typing or similar tests that don't really mean anything? If about 50% of what is described in the type looks like the truth, then in relation to the remaining 50% there is a rapid rationalization and they are also taken for the truth. A person sincerely begins to think that the description is completely about him, especially if it contains a lot of good and pleasant things. This is how our brain works.

Sometimes we are prone to cognitive biases when dealing with experts or pseudo-experts. When we have a whole package of views and ideas and we value them, there is a risk of taking on faith something else without testing. That is, if the guru of the method of treatment invented by him drowns for organic products and dietary supplements (both categories of products are often positioned as extremely useful, although in most cases this is not the case. - Approx. ed.), then it will be easy for her or him to win over those who already buy organic products and believe in dietary supplements. The new, as it were, immediately finds itself inside the approved zone and is not tested - after all, it has the same mental sticker as on the previous ideas.

Placebo benefits

When alternative methods work, it is a placebo effect that is psychologically mediated. If a person believes that he will get better, the psyche can sometimes make the body react to the sugar ball like a medicine, with very real changes. There is also a reverse, that is, the opposite, placebo effect: if you do not consciously or unconsciously believe that something works, then it may not work, even if there were no prerequisites for the absence of the effect.

Our psyche has tremendous power over the body. This power is not absolute; many diseases cannot be cured by placebos. But for some types of pain, gastrointestinal diseases or cardiovascular problems, the effect of alternative remedies, pseudo-guru recommendations and methods can be comparable to the effect of officially tested and confirmed therapies. Perhaps, after a certain number of years, all this will be thoroughly studied and we will be able to directly influence our body ourselves, without the help of pseudo-experts and gurus, without wasting time and money on them.

Photos: An liang - stock.adobe.com, Andrey Kuzmin - stock.adobe.com, Maksim Kostenko - stock.adobe.com

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