The Placebo Effect


In the film Dumbo, some might recall, Dumbo is given a feather by Timothy Mouse to “help Dumbo fly”  (so Timothy says). Of course, the viewers know previously that it is, in fact, just an ordinary feather and is thus just a psychological trick by Timothy to make Dumbo believe that he can fly with it, a power Dumbo possesses regardless of the feather’s presence; a point reiterated at the conclusion, when Dumbo loses the feather and is falling to his perceived death when Timothy tells him it was all a ruse, after which Dumbo proceeds to fly around the circus tent to the shock of his peers and the circus audience.

Timothy Q. Mouse, after the infamous “Pink Elephants” scene (a similar present in many films where the effects of alcohol intoxication, usually after drinking absinthe, are portrayed – falsely – as hallucinatory)

This actual effect that one supposedly gets effect from an ineffectual and useless device (a “placebo”, i.e. a sugar pill) is often called the placebo effect in the literature of psychology. In this article, the author goes through a couple of experiments that Ellen Langer has done regarding this real effect.

[The title of this article is pretty “click-baity” and the pictures in this article (toddlers dressed as old people I guess) are pretty irrelevant to the “actual” content. I have pasted some relevant and interesting, albeit edited, bits (as I always do), though the content of this article is mostly interesting due to the conclusion in Langer’s (and others’) work:]

“In one [study], she [Langer] found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.

She [Langer, thus] came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself. Gathering the older men together in New Hampshire, for what she would later refer to as a counterclockwise study [a different study from the one above], would be a way to test this premise.

The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told me. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.

Each day, as they discussed sports or “current” events or dissected the movie they just watched, they spoke about these late-’50s artifacts and events in the present tense — one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years.

At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.


Langer came to believe that one way to enhance well-being was to use all sorts of placebos. Placebos aren’t just sugar pills disguised as medicine; they are any intervention, benign but believed by the recipient to be potent, that produces measurable physiological changes. Placebo effects are a striking phenomenon and still not all that well understood. Entire fields like psychoneuroimmunology and psychoendocrinology have emerged to investigate the relationship between psychological and physiological processes. Neuroscientists are charting what’s going on in the brain when expectations alone reduce pain or relieve Parkinson’s symptoms. More traditionally minded health researchers acknowledge the role of placebo effects and account for them in their experiments. But Langer goes well beyond that. She thinks they’re huge — so huge that in many cases they may actually be the main factor producing the results.

As an example, she points to a study she conducted in a hair salon in 2009. She got the idea from a study undertaken nearly a decade earlier by three scientists who looked at more than 4,000 subjects over two decades and found that men who were bald when they joined the study were more likely to develop prostate cancer than men who kept their hair. The researchers couldn’t be sure what explained the link, though they suspected that androgens (male hormones including testosterone) could be affecting both scalp and prostate. Langer had another theory: “Baldness is a cue for old age,” she says. “Therefore, men who go bald early in life may perceive themselves as older and may consequently be expected to age more quickly.” And those expectations may actually lead them to experience the effects of aging. To explore this relationship between expectations of aging and physiological signs of health, Langer and her colleagues designed the hair-salon study. They had research assistants approach women who were about to have their hair cut, colored or both. They took blood-pressure readings. After the subjects’ hair was done, they filled out a questionnaire about how they felt they looked, and their blood pressure was taken again. In a paper published in 2010 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, they reported that the subjects who perceived themselves as looking younger after the makeover experienced a drop in blood pressure.

A few years earlier, Langer and one of her students, Alia Crum, conducted a study involving hotel chambermaids. The maids had mostly reported that they didn’t get much exercise in a typical week. The researchers primed the experimental group to think differently about their work by informing them that cleaning rooms was fairly serious exercise — as much if not more than the surgeon general recommends. Once their expectations were shifted, those maids lost weight, relative to a control group (and also improved on other measures like body mass index and hip-to-waist ratio). All other factors were held constant. The only difference was the change in mind-set.”

Grierson, Bruce. 2014. “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” The New York Times, October 22.

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