Some people deliberately take placebo pills in the belief that they will get them better. But researchers warn against this risky development.

Many people believe that taking a placebo—a drug prescribed or promoted that contains no active ingredients—can have a powerful effect on the body. It might even cure some ailments. But is that really so? Researchers claim in a opinion article that the reality is often very different.

Placebo effect

The placebo effect involves the idea that you can recover from an illness after taking a ‘sugar pill’ simply because your brain and body think we’ve really been treated. But is this idea just a myth? “The placebo effect is real,” says Christopher Maher in conversation with “The effect is just very small. And even this small effect only applies to certain health conditions. So I think people actually misunderstand this issue, partly because there has been a lot of flawed research in this area and proponents continue to bring these dubious studies to the fore.”


In a new study, Maher and his team examined some claims about the placebo effect. And they think that is very necessary. “Given the recent advocacy of the clinical use of placebos, it is time to consider the evidence to support these claims,” ​​the authors write. For example, the researchers considered the assumption that placebos really work. “Assessments that measure the placebo effect appropriately show that placebos usually have only a modest effect,” they conclude. “Claims that placebos produce important clinical effects are based on questionable science. In one case, for example, the researchers completely ignored the data from the control group.”

Other assumptions

It is also said that placebos would work better over time. But even that claim has relegated the researchers to the realm of fables. “It’s impossible to manipulate time in a clinical trial,” they say. “Therefore, this claim has no basis.” And finally, the color and shape of a placebo pill would influence the extent of the placebo effect. An assumption that surprises Mayer. “It is often claimed that red placebo pills work better than white ones,” he says. “But this idea stems from a study where people hadn’t even taken a pill or suffered from a health problem. Researchers simply lined up different colored pills and asked 20 subjects which colored pill they thought would work best.”

For sale

Yet there are a lot of placebo pills for sale on the internet, for example via Amazon. People consciously buy such pills in the hope that the placebo effect will also apply to them. And they sometimes pay quite a bit for that. “Such placebo pills don’t come cheap,” Mayer says. “On the Australian website, a bottle of 45 placebo pills costs over $150. That seems like a lot of money for nothing to me.”

“A bottle of 45 placebo pills costs more than $150 on the Australian website”


According to the researcher, it is high time we said goodbye to the idea that placebos have a powerful effect. “This is really the most important claim to debunk,” he says. “It is simply not true and we have known that for decades. As a scientist, I am annoyed when poor quality science is used to mislead people. But placebo myths have been fueled and reinforced by people who overhype and misquote research. We should therefore be very careful about exactly how we communicate science to the public.”

Missed opportunity

Yet placebo pills are gaining ground. Some even argue that we should integrate placebos into mainstream care. For example, it has been suggested that placebos could possibly be used as a substitute in medical care, because the placebo effect might be strong enough for that. But the researchers reject that. Although pills that do not contain active substances have indeed led to unexpected results in some cases, they do not think that we should overestimate their power. For most patients, placebo pills will make practically no difference. “Placebos are really a missed opportunity to access a real drug,” Mayer said. “That’s what worries me the most.”

According to Mayer, patients would do well not to turn to placebos, which are sometimes offered at ridiculous prices. “They can be better treated with real, proven effective treatments,” he says. Because, according to the researchers, in most cases these will actually yield better results.