Placebos may also be beneficial for psychological intervention

The placebo effect, a common phenomenon in medical treatment, could be beneficial for psychological intervention to improve well-being, according to new research. The effects of placebos are often comparable to psychotherapy, in which both types of treatment rely mainly on relationships with patients, as well as expectations in the recovery process.

Researchers from the Division of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Basel, in collaboration with the Institute of Psychology at the University of Zurich, conducted three separate studies on 421 healthy participants.

In the studies, video experiments were initiated utilizing the color green as the placebo to measure any efficiency in psychological intervention. Green, described to participants as ‘calming,’ due to its activation in early conditioned emotional schemata, was used as the psychological narrative.

The participants, upon watching the videos, were accessed for their subjective condition through questionnaires. Based on the findings, the placebo triggered a positive effect on their well-being when participants followed the psychological narrative, while also in the context of a neutral or friendly relationship.

“The observed effects were comparable with those of psychotherapeutic interventions in the same populations,” said Jens Gaab, one of the lead researchers of the study.

Psychological placebos and its measurable effects, Gaab says, challenges both research and clinical practice to address both mechanisms and ethical implications.

“In conclusion, our results show that placebos with a psychological treatment rationale are possible and effective, when provided in a trustworthy, friendly and empathetic relationship, at least in healthy subjects,” researchers concluded.

“This opens the door for genuine placebo research in the realm of psychotherapy and the results of this research would not only be of interest for placebo research, but also inform the conceptualization and testing of psychological interventions.”

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.