Traditionally, researchers have thought of "placebo effects" as something phony. Placebos are drug study controls, not the real treatment. And, the idea of sugar pills as effective medicine was almost an affront to science.
Recently, though, attitudes have changed. Amid evidence that placebo effects are strengthening, researchers have started looking at the phenomenon as something more positive. They’ve shown the experience can produce physiological effects, and can even be beneficial when patients know what’s going on.
Daniel Jacobs also wants to use placebos for good. His new app, which he’s crowd-funding on Indiegogo, is an attempt to take the placebo out of the doctor’s office and into your home. He hopes it will make people feel better, and contribute further to placebo research.
You start by setting a goal: say, more joy or love in your life. Then, you choose someone to give you the placebo (maybe a friend or family member), what you want it to be (a pill, say), and where you want to take it (maybe a forest where you go running with a friend). You then "take" the placebo whenever you want to, following a pre-set ritual built into the app.
The point is to replicate what’s important about the placebo effect, which isn’t the pill itself, but the experience. "If we think about placebo as a transformational symbol, then people get to choose what placebo they want," says Jacobs. "It can be a pill, magic wand, holy book, communion wafer, or herbs. It just needs to be meaningful for them."
Up to 100 people have tested it so far, and, according to Jacobs, almost all them have felt better afterwards. He says if people don’t feel an effect, the app can adapt and serve up a different experience next time.
The Placebo Effect project is backed by several reputable names, including a senior executive at American Institutes for Research, and a principal at Deloitte Consulting. Jacobs hopes to use the $50,000 from the campaign to develop a production app for iPhone and Android, and eventually to put the app through a full clinical trial.
"It would be great if lots of people use it and it works really well," he says. "But it would be even better if we can prove that it works, and if we can support others doing next step experiments."