If nobody believed in superstition it would be unable to hurt anyone


The Placebo Effect

What is the placebo?

The placebo is a bullshit cure or whatever and the attraction is how it makes a sick person feel better. 


Here are things that might be defined as placeboes


1 when a benefit comes from a real or fake treatment that is not intended that is a placebo. Real medicines can trigger a placebo

2 a benefit can be thought to have something to do with a treatment and have nothing to do with it


3 an inert drug  may be given to the patient that the patient responds to as if it were pharmacologically effective


4 a treatment that is nonspecific in what it is supposed to do - the person puts their own interpretation on why they feel better and think its the treatment


5 Sometimes people take medicine and there are good results that are totally unaccountable

6  Even being in a situation seen as involving healing and care for you can trigger a placebo even if you walk away with no sugar pills


7  Often people think that things like meditation do them good while not realising that just sitting on the sofa for a while does the same thing


What does the placebo do?


People think a placebo is just about helping pain.

But there is emotional pain and physical pain. There is pain involved in what bad things you feel the future holds for you.

Pain does not bother people so much as in how they feel abut it. Even the mere fact of being ill makes you feel bad and unhappy. It is not coming from the illness but from how you feel about being ill. Even the best placebo cannot take some forms of pain away. Thinking of the summer and a beach does not take away toothache. Trying to use a placebo in that case only makes you feel worse and more helpless.

Placebos are mostly sought for emotional pain.

Emotional pain is not just your experience. If you do not feel supported by other people this pain will be worse. The fear of how you will deal with your illness emotionally and how others will deal with it will hurt a lot.  The placebo if it works then works because it makes you feel supported and that the universe cares.


When a doctor gives you sugar tablets to cure your erroneous belief that you are sick or sicker than what you are and you improve that is the placebo effect at work.

It is really the doctor's helpfulness and giving you hope that helps not the tablet. A placebo requires support from other people to work. They need to help you keep feeling better. Company helps.


Take the placebo in medicine. The placebo has the best chance of success when a pill is very big and costly. Fake surgery works better than any pill as a placebo. If you are very sick you feel you need drastic help which is why you will respond better to something that seems invasive be it surgery or an injection or whatever. Side-effects real or imagined from the treatment trigger a placebo effect for they think then the treatment is powerful. Another huge factor is the patient must be listened to and feel involved and active in the treatment. The latter means that if you think God is curing you and listening to you and letting you get involved a placebo will result.


So it is clear - it is about most sick peoples feelings.  It is mostly about any individual's feelings.


The placebo is basically a form of emotional manipulation.  It is a feel-good lie.  An issue comes up for ethics.  There is not only the patient to worry about but the fact that others will see a lie has been told and lies spread and lead to more lies.


The belief placebo


A belief can be a placebo but does not have to be.  There is no way of knowing if the person with a placebo who seems to benefit really believes in it or lacks conviction.  A fantasy can be a good placebo too.  A film can make you feel wonderful despite you knowing it is not real.


Anything at all can be a placebo and there is no guarantee that the placebo you get is the best one for you.  Most people don't care and just want to feel better.

So far it is clear that at best a placebo should be seen as a necessary evil.


If people get a placebo cure, it cannot make them really in any way better.  It is not a cure and what happens is the person will feel better if she or he has a big belief in the cure.  Placebos offer you principles that they claim work while what works is not the principles at all.  Placebos breed quackery and when it is your health you are dealing with you really need to be grounded in reality for reality does not change for anyone.  It is what it is.  Placebo givers need courses and through those the misinformation and lies are spread.  Mainstream treatments end up being put under suspicion and medical professionals get slandered.


In medicine, the placebo effect is a necessary evil. It is not something to be happy about doing to a sick person.

A placebo does not just appear – it has to be paved the way for and developed.  It never takes one lie to do a placebo it takes several and if you lie now you don't know how much lying you will have to do to make the lie look true.

A placebo is intended to fool you into thinking it will make you better. This causes you to feel better and more hopeful. It is never the placebo that helps but how one feels about it so it follows any placebo will do. That could be dangerous. It proves nothing has the right to claim to be the best placebo.


A placebo is fundamentally a mechanism by which you seek to dodge the truth because you think it relieves or stops pain. It does not follow that the truth is really as painful as you imagine. The sensible person makes the truth her or his placebo instead of trying to look for quick and ultimately harmful solutions.


The placebo is not ideal and has dangers

A placebo like medicine is NEVER all good.  There will be another side.  While your back pain feels better you may feel you have a side effect of headaches.  With medicine you expect to feel better but not perfect and you will expect side-effects.  Some of these side-effects may make you seek a new placebo and even be a no-cebo - the harmful opposite of placebo.


Placeboes do not work for everybody. A significant minority will get no benefit from the placebo. Also, in medicine you give a group the real drug and another group the fake one. But you need the group which gets neither so that you can measure the placebo as well. The minority could be better off not knowing they are immune to placeboes. Believing the placebo is not for them closes them off from all future placeboes that are offered to them.


The person attached to a placebo will ignore or dismiss or avoid any evidence that disconfirms his placebo.


Obviously it will not do to depend on the effect too much or to give it as a treatment too often.


Like all lies, the placebo lie will be found out. And the person giving the placebo does have a duty to wean you off it and that involves kindly admitting the truth. When any placebo will do and people all have different  placeboes that they think they believe in for different reasons surely the truth has to out that they are being led to kid themselves?


Giving a person a placebo that helps them, risks judging them as stupid people or people who care about what they want to think and not the truth.

I would add that having a placebo creates a need for new  placeboes that seem to validate it and creates an unhealthy fondness for  placeboes and fantasy based thinking.


So we see that  placeboes though sometimes needed are only short-term helps. They are not to be celebrated but seen as necessary evils.


A good doctor will try to wean you off  placeboes. They are only for short-term immediate and important help. They are given to be outgrown. Faith healing is cruel for it wants to keep you on them.


If you are making yourself ill from trying too hard to be healthy or to get rid of sickness or from worrying too much about getting ill, then a placebo may help. But it is not much of a help. It is not a real help. What you need is for the doctor or whoever to tell you to go out and think about the wellbeing of others and do something to make them much better. It will keep your mind occupied and rescue you from thinking too much about yourself. You are still indirectly thinking of yourself but in the proper way. Also, what relieves you is that you are telling yourself that others have to worry about their health not you and that comforts you because it is them not you that will have to suffer should anything happen.


Happiness is impossible if you are an island. When you are happy you are happy with others. Happiness is collective. Collective happiness is what people really need not  placeboes.  Placeboes are too focused on insular happiness.


Do not force yourself to think positive. You need to think about and plan situations where positive thinking will emerge naturally. That means finding joyful people who are full of life.


Prayer placebo

Nobody really likes hurting others or waging war.  Prayer is the placebo for evil that gets believers to overcome their better nature in order to kill people in the name of God. Even if a believer kills and thinks God is against it the believer still thinks that God somehow is responsible. The believer consoles herself by saying, “If it was wrong for me to do what I did at least God will get it to turn good.”  God being creator means that God is more responsible for something happening than we can ever be.  Religion and worship and prayer are all about how no matter how terrible an evil it he is doing something to turn it good.


Magic placebo

The placebo works through by being faith in faith.


Any placebo would do because it is never the placebo that heals but one's positive and hopeful attitude to it. So there is no justification for involving religion or healers in triggering the placebo. Better to give somebody some holy water or a healing spellbook than to send for a healer. It is better still to give a person the lifeskills that help them reduce the need for the placebo.


If a placebo is ever justified, using a religious or magical one never is. It is not needed for a start. It is always better to give a person a sugar pill than to send them to a spell-weaver. At least then they think it is science that is helping them.




Many people suffering from depression are helped by  placeboes and they get new hope. It is obvious that only testable placeboes can be tried. To tell somebody that God can help them if they ask is irresponsible.  Lots of people have done that and it has not worked and the only thing that helped was another placebo or medication.


A placebo needs a third party.  Thus a placebo for depression should only be facilitated by somebody who knows what they are doing.

If the problem is depression, thinking that prayer is lifting it, is dangerous. And even more so when prayer is said to bring answers but not in the way you expect - for example, it may not be God's will that you recover. It is better to feel that your own inner resources are getting you through it. Self-confidence needs to grow to help the problem. If you discover that you need to be lied to by the person giving you a placebo or to deceive yourself that is not going to help your depression but worsen it.


The Lourdes Placebo

The placebo is faith in faith and that is dangerous and that stunts one's intellectual and emotional growth. Spiritual people who dish out  placeboes package them as being about more than just physical or emotional healing - they tend to say there is a spiritual or religious element too. They offer holistic placeboes - mind and body and spirit. If faith in faith is even slightly encouraged and as a placebo then surely any faith will do?


Catholic teaching insists that Jesus said that if he will do a miracle you must have strong faith first.  What about Catholic devotees and priests encouraging sick people to believe they can and will be cured so that the door to a miracle can be opened?  It is sick!  No longer must they be able to say, "We promise Lourdes will heal the heart and that is the real miracle."  No longer must they be able to say, "Real healings are rare but Lourdes heals through a placebo and it does not matter how somebody gets better as long as they do".  Both of these are still giving false hope and putting people in emotional danger.  To promise a placebo is quite cruel and even worse than promising that a real miracle might happen. The good at Lourdes is what we hear about.  That is dishonest.  There is another side.   It is a dark side that makes promoting it totally unjustifiable.


It actually crueler to promise a definite or possible miracle cure in the sense of finding peace than a physical one.  The Church certainly does that when it invites people to Lourdes.


An improvement in spiritual health is sooo easy to imagine when you are a vulnerable person that it gets your healer off the hook even if she is a total fake.


Pretending that you are healing the soul when you are not doing anything for the body or mind is a new scam.

St Bernadette of Lourdes said that those who said that holy water from Lourdes cured them were in fact cured by their faith and prayers. The placebo effect can be triggered by faith and prayer but the problem is that the "cure" or the new feeling of wellbeing will be attributed not to the placebo effect but to faith and prayer. What is wrong with that? It means that you ascribe the healing to the wrong thing and that is dangerous. You cannot get proper solutions unless you know what really works. If you think prayer cured you, you will not be looking for medicine anymore. You can say, "Okay I will not bother taking the cancer treatment as I am treating myself with prayer. If it does not seem to work, it only shows that in God's plan it was not meant to. Prayer cannot fail." Believers say that God cures through medicine which means that medicine in itself is no good - it is God empowering it to work that matters.


Medicine is no good in itself no matter what science says. That is a terrible view and means that it is luck not design we have to thank if religious people use doctors. At least if you suspect the cure or feeling better is the result of a placebo, you can continue with medical treatment for  placeboes have their place in medical theory.


Religion as placebo


Even if religion is not a placebo the fact remains is that people treat it like it is.  It need not be inherently a placebo in order to thrive on being used as one.

If that is what a religion needs to be strong then no matter how wise its teaching is it is still a bad religion.  For example, bad people who die are always said to be in Heaven!  Many religions are inherently placebos.  If a religion treats itself as a placebo or potential placebo for evil that could be the reason why its members are at times worse than average.


What's the harm?


Some attempt to trigger a placebo in others by telling them they are praying for their healing be it of a spiritual nature or non-spiritual.  Religious people will believe that God will not be dumb enough to accept such prayers.  They are props not prayers.   To ask God to heal somebody's body implies that healing them from spiritual flaws comes first.  The idea is that God never gives you anything that makes you less holy or good.  So praying for spiritual healing is at the back of the minds of all who pray for others. But back to the placebo.  In tests it backfires and the prayed for end up giving up a bit or a lot and end up no better or worse as a result. Some wonder if the failure is evidence that praying for people psychically or magically hurts them.  If that happens the nocebo will grow very strong.


Heal others by hoping for them.  People's immune systems and their hearts get a boost when they know somebody hopes for the best for them.  Hope is better than faith and you are better rid of faith than rid of hope.  Faith is just a needless gimmick placebo.


From Skeptical Inquirer, March-April 2018


Do Superstitious Rituals Work?

Let us stipulate that there is no magic. Sleight-of-hand, deception, illusion, and conjuring, yes, but no “real” magic. On this, most science-minded people agree. But when it comes to superstition, there has always been an additional, less obvious question. Of course, superstitions do not have a magical effect on the world, but do they have psychological benefits? Could superstitions make difficult situations easier to handle? Furthermore, if they have an emotional or psychological benefit, could they also produce better performance in situations where skill is involved? The psychological benefits of superstitions—if they exist—would not be expected to change your luck at the roulette wheel, but perhaps an actor’s pre-performance ritual could reduce anxiety, allowing for better acting.


Then in 2010 there was a great advance—or so it seemed. Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany conducted the now famous golf ball study (Damisch et al. 2010). Participants were given a putter and asked to hit a golf ball into a cup on the carpet of a laboratory. Half the participants were handed a ball and told, “This ball has been lucky today.” The other half were told, “This is your ball.” As it turned out, more than 80 percent of the German participants reported believing in the concept of good luck, and when the results were tallied, the researchers discovered that participants in the lucky ball group sank significantly more of their putts than the other group. Furthermore, Damisch et al. replicated this result with different tasks and several different luck-activating superstitions. Of course, there still was no magic, but these studies seemed to have demonstrated that believing in luck gave participants the confidence to perform better than they otherwise would. A phenomenon long speculated to be a possibility had finally been demonstrated in a laboratory setting.

Except there was a catch. As I reported in my January 2017 online column (“Your Unlearning Report: The Trouble with Empathy, Implicit Bias, and Believing in Luck,” available at https://tinyurl.com/yc9nm8vu), a group of researchers at Dominion University in Illinois conducted a replication of the Damisch et al. study in 2014 and found no luck-enhancing effect on putting (Calin-Jageman and Caldwell 2014). Furthermore, the 2014 study included over three times as many golfers and was a pre-registered study—meaning that the design and methods of the study were publicly posted prior the start of data collection. The Dominion study was much more thorough and scientifically sound, and it came up empty. So, at least with respect to the effect of luck on putting performance, the jury is still out.

Please do the following ritual: Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.

In a series of experiments, Brooks et al. showed that participants who performed this ritual did better on the task—high-pressure math problems or singing—than those who did not. Furthermore, they were able to show that the effect was mediated by a reduction in anxiety. So performing a symbolic ritual prior to a high-anxiety task reduced anxiety, which in turn produced better performance.


For one group of participants, this new sequence was described as “random behaviors,” and for another it was described as a “ritual.” Finally, a third group did not perform the sequence of actions at all. The results showed that the ritual group had lower anxiety and performed significantly better on a timed math test than either the random behaviors group or the no ritual group. The authors suggested that merely calling the sequence a “ritual” was sufficient to give it the necessary symbolic function to reduce anxiety and increase performance. Brooks et al. did not find that participants had an increased sense of control, which was surprising because a desire for control has often been cited as a motivation for superstitious behavior (e.g., Hamerman and Johar 2013). Instead, the effect on performance was entirely due to reduced anxiety.
Does this mean that superstitious rituals work? Yes and no. The Brooks et al. study suggests that superstitious rituals do work—not because they are superstitious but because they are rituals. Any old ritual will do, including writing numbers on a piece of paper, crinkling it up, and throwing it away



You don’t have to believe in the efficacy of a ritual for it to help you feel better. All of these studies are preliminary, and it will be important to see whether they hold up when other researchers try to reproduce the results. Furthermore, there is much more we need to know about why and how rituals work. But these early findings are quite interesting.

For skeptics who would like to discourage superstitious and irrational thinking, this line of research has both a downside and an upside. The downside is that the research by Brooks et al. suggests that superstitious rituals do work—not because they are magic but because they are rituals. As a result, the calming features of superstitious rituals and the improved performance they engender are likely to sustain superstitious thinking. The superstitious person’s beliefs will appear to be validated. The upside, however, is that skeptics now have a ready response to those who claim their superstitions work: Yes, your superstitions work, but it’s the ritual, not the superstition that’s making you feel better. Any old ritual will do.


Brooks, Alison, Juliana Schroeder, Jane Risen, et al. 2016. Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 137: 71–85.

Calin-Jageman, Robert J., and Tracy L. Caldwell. 2014. Replication of the superstition and performance study by Damisch, Stoberock, and Mussweiler (2010). Social Psychology 45(3): 239–45.

Damisch, Lysann, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler. 2010. Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science 21(7): 1014–20. Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20511389.

Hamerman, Eric J., and Gita V. Johar. 2013. Conditioned superstition: Desire for control and consumer brand preferences. Journal of Consumer Research 40(3): 428–43.

Norton, Michael I., and Francesca Gino. 2014. Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143(1): 266–72.

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