AS A LONGTIME HEALTH EDITOR, I like to think I’m smart about medical science. Yet what do I do when I have a scratchy throat? I pop open a packet of over-the-counter “immune support” tablets, drop them in a glass of water, and listen, half laughing at myself, for the telltale FIZZZZ sound.
No clinical studies support the effectiveness of this concoction. None of its ingredients, possibly excepting zinc, are proven to prevent colds or their symptoms.
I treat my insomnia in much the same way. When I wake at 3 a.m., I pop ibuprofen to help me resume my snooze—despite the fact that at least one double-blind study found that it promotes sleep no better than fake pills.
Sticking to my rituals is not as dumb as I sometimes feel it is. As Robert Anthony Siegel explains in “The Power of Fake Pills” on page 78, drugs don’t need effective active ingredients to offer symptom relief. In study after study, a treatment will get similar results as a dummy version and hence be judged a failure. Yet the subjects in both groups end up feeling better—because the act of taking a pill by itself can do good work.
Siegel’s account plumbs science’s growing appreciation of this placebo effect. With some symptoms and illnesses, many of us can be persuaded— or persuade ourselves—to heal faster via what scientists would call an ineffective treatment.
Do you have an “unscientific” concoction that you believe works for you, and so it does? Please tell us about it at rd.com/placebo. Meanwhile, I’ll bet on my semi-comic ritual with the fizz to do what it always seems to—tamp down any brewing cold by morning. In health, as in life, we should never underestimate the power of belief.