September 28, 2005

Shang et al have found the clinical effects of homeopathy to be comparable to placebo effects: giving rise to various reactions of outrage, including two pages in the same Lancet issue devoted to letters criticising the WHO study and findings.

Yet maybe it was specifically in looking for a placebo effect that a placebo was found. I find it particularly peculiar that most users of homeopathic remedies are aware that the substance in solution, undiluted, would normally cause the symptom from which they are seeking relief. Knowing this, might not the effect of belief-in-cure tend to be cancelled out by awareness of what the substance actually does?

Thus, I suggest a different direction for research, originally hinted at by a controversial Nisbett study which found that an effective treatment for insomnia seemed to be placebos believed to be arousal pills: a case of belief in the substance's effect producing the opposite effect. Specifically, I focus on Brockner and Swap's follow-up study, which found that while the inverted effect as a whole could not be duplicated, such duplication could be found specifically within a group of subjects testing low on self-esteem dimensions.

Placed into a slightly different contextual frame, what quantifies as "low self-esteem" could be an expression simply of a desire for personalised feedback: something conventional westernised medical structures (unlike homeopathic practitioner-patient relations) currently lack.

Are we really looking, not at placebo, but at a possible reverse placebo effect here?

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