In a BBC Horizon programme last week the impact of placebos was explored. It was an astonishing programme, available on the BBC iplayer in UK for about 10 days. What impact could this have on behavioural change and personal development?

The programme gave a number of examples of research into placebos. One showed patients having back surgery. Half had the procedure, half thought they had the procedure but did not. The recovery rate in those receiving the placebo was remarkable.

Another example showed professional speed cyclists. All the cyclists were asked to do two runs in the same day, where normally they would do just one and then rest for a day. Before their second run they were given tablets. Half received what they were told was caffeine, the other caffeine plus extra legal performance enhancing ingredients. In fact they all received cornflour in a tablet! All the cyclists recorded a faster time for their second run, and one in the second group even recorded a personal best.

But then the idea of having to ‘lie’ to people was explored. Harvard medical school experimented by giving a placebo to people suffering from the pain of irritable bowel syndrome. And they told the patients it was just a placebo. Still some of the people reported a difference. The patient interviewed said the pain went and she felt fine. Only when the tablets ran out did the pain return. And she knew there was nothing in the tablets.

Another survey compared the effects of giving a placebo to patients with very little interpersonal impact by the doctor, no questions, encouragement etc. The other group received lots of interest, questions, listening and encouragement. The latter groups improvement was very statistically significant.

What could this mean? The implications are being examined and there is still a long way to go, but we may be able to draw some pointers.

The importance of self belief. The placebo seems to prove that if we think or believe in something, then somehow the body delivers. Anything we can do to encourage self belief may well have a positive impact on the outcome. At ITD we’re doing a lot of work on how to support and encourage self belief in the implementation of actions taken from training courses. We are applying the psychology of behavioural change to implementing actions, and if this supports self belief and therefore the probability of implementations then all the better.

What can we learn from the remarkable impact of placebos?
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