Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Nocebo: Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Might

By Peter Bowditch

The opposite of a placebo is called a “nocebo”, which is when expectations of a bad effect lead to a bad experience.

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The word “placebo” comes from the Latin meaning “I must please”, and is a psychological condition that causes people to respond favourably to medical treatments that actually have no active component. It is based on the expectation that something good is happening, and actually applies to real medicines and treatments as well. Clinical trials are designed to separate real effects from placebo.

The opposite to placebo is called a “nocebo” and is when a bad effect is experienced because of expectations that this will occur.

I’ll start with an anecdote because as any practitioner of pseudo­science will tell you anecdotes are just as good as real data. I have a condition called acrophobia – a fear of heights. This is an evolutionary trait, because people who went too close to the edges of cliffs often didn’t live long enough to leave offspring. In my case it isn’t really a fear of heights but a fear of falling – I have no problem on the balconies of apartments in tall buildings or on walking trails with handrails on mountain cliffs because I have something to firmly hold onto.

On a holiday in Central Australia a few years ago I did the then-obligatory climb up the rock at Uluru. At a particular point on the climb you can be presented with an optical illusion of being suspended in the air. I reached this point, looked down and was paralysed. It took me...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.