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The placebo effect is amplified when doctors appear likeable and competent

27 October 2017

A lot of clinical research tries its best to find the true effects of a treatment above and beyond the placebo effect – that is, the benefits that can arise purely from a person’s expectations that an intervention will be helpful.

A new study in Health Psychology takes a different approach: instead of always seeing the placebo effect as “a nuisance variable with mysterious impact”, argue Lauren Howe and her colleagues at Stanford University, we should try to find out more about how to enhance it, and how to diminish its harmful twin, the nocebo effect (when negative expectations can lead to harmful effects).

To this end, the researchers examined the possible moderating influence of a physician’s demeanour, finding that the placebo effect is enhanced by the impression of warmth and competence.

Howe and her team write: “Among the many demands of a career in medicine, physicians have been increasingly directed to build rapport with their patients (e.g., by exhibiting empathy). This research suggests a compelling reason for why physicians should pay attention to these psychological and social forces: They can impact physiological health outcomes.”

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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