You See What You Believe: How to Make the Placebo Effect Work for You

This excerpt from an insightful new book 'Everything is Figureoutable' by Marie Forleo talks about the placebo effect and how our beliefs shape our lives.

Can we create the life we desire? In an informative and insightful new book Everything is Figureoutable (Penguin Random House India), Marie Forleo talks about the placebo effect and how our beliefs shape our lives. An excerpt…

Who hasn’t made a whopping headache instantly disappear when someone important calls and pulls our focus in a completely different direction? Or miraculously recovered from feeling sick or exhausted when an exciting “unmissable” invitation appears at the last minute?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the placebo effect. If not, it’s the idea that if you believe something will help you feel better, it will – even if you’re just taking a sugar pill. But what about a placebo surgery?

Just wait until you hear this: Bruce Moseley, an orthopedic surgeon, was skeptical about the benefits of “arthroscopic surgery.” So he tested it. He conducted a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, the gold standard in scientific research.

In the study, some of his patients would receive the full and complete knee surgery. Others would get a sham surgery, meaning they’d go through all the motions of real surgery (getting wheeled into the operating room, seeing the doctors in white coats, being put under anesthesia, et cetera) but only receive a few shallow cuts to their knees and be sent home with a healing protocol and painkillers.

Everything-is-figureoutable-book.jpgOne-third of the patients who received the real surgery experienced pain relief. But what stunned researchers was that one-third of patients who underwent the sham surgery had the same results. At one point during the study, those having the sham surgery enjoyed better results than those who got the real deal!

Here’s another example. In 1962, the Kyushu Journal of Medical Science included a stunning report about an experiment focused on 13 boys who were hypersensitive to the leaves of Japanese lacquer trees, which has poison-ivy-like effects.

With their eyes closed, the 13 boys were told that they were being touched on one arm with the poisonous Japanese lacquer leaves. Unsurprisingly, all 13 boys had a dramatic skin reaction on their arms, including redness, itching, swelling, and blisters. The catch? Their arms were actually touched by the leaves of a harmless, nonpoisonous plant.

Then the researchers reversed the procedure. With their eyes still closed, the 13 boys were told that they were being touched on their other arm by the leaves of a harmless plant. But in reality, those arms were now being touched by the poison-ivy-like leaves of the lacquer tree. This time, 11 of the 13 boys showed no allergic skin reaction on their arms. None at all – despite the fact that they were highly sensitive to those rash-producing lacquer leaves.

Ultimately, the harmless leaves not only triggered a dramatic skin reaction but that reaction was greater than the one produced by the actual poisonous leaves. These intense physical responses simply come down to the monumental power of belief.

Beliefs can also enhance our cognitive performance. In a small but insightful experiment, 40 undergraduate students prepared to take a general knowledge test.

Marie Forleo

Before doing so, half the students were told that just before each question, the correct answer would be momentarily and subliminally flashed on a screen in front of them. The authors of the study, Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan, write, “We advised them that although they could no longer consciously recognise what was written, their unconscious would still be able to pick up the correct answer.”

In truth, no correct answers were subliminally shown to that group of students. What they saw flash on the screen was a random string of letters. The result? Out of the two groups of students who took the general knowledge test, the group of students who were primed to believe they were subliminally shown the correct answers scored measurably higher on the test than the students who were not.

Your beliefs are the master commanders of your behaviour and your results. Beliefs control our bodies and how we respond to crises, criticisms, and opportunities. They tell us what to notice, what to focus on, what it means, and what to do about it.

The fact that your beliefs shape your reality is undeniable. They affect you physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, intellectually, and culturally. Long term, your beliefs determine your destiny. Beliefs create behaviours. The cumulation of those behaviors adds up to your entire life.

Lead image: Pixabay. Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India. First published in eShe’s December 2019 issue

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