Belief is a powerful drug. It is a drug that works best at the deepest levels of the human mind,affecting it both consciously and subconsciously.Belief,as a drug works, when human beings perceive it to stem from something authentic. The critical word here is ‘perceive’, since for human beings perception is reality. Frankly perception is all that matters really.

It doesn’t really matter what the facts are but beliefs in the potency of a weird tasting energy drink,military flags and uniforms,homeopathy,a swoosh sign or some female beauty exotic potion have led to creation of large companies,institutions and brands. These symbols or ideas or brands trigger a significant positive change in their consumers or followers.This phenomenon is called the placebo effect.

Placebos, in the field of medicine,have helped alleviate chronic pain,depression, rheumatoid arthritis,high blood pressure,angina, asthma, ulcers,Parkinson’s disease and even cancer.Placebos in medical terms are ‘pharmacologically inert medications’, Medically speaking, placebos can be a pill or an injection.In a non-medical world the placebos could also ideas or brands,a good-luck charm,a ritual,a perfume that we wear on a first date.

Placebos are excellent problem solving tools. They are ideas that are planted in our minds. In a sense they hack our brains.When these ideas stick,they trigger beliefs. And beliefs create expectations. “Expectations create a different reality for us,which we don’t really appreciate,” said Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist. The great thing about placebos is that they are very effective. And they do so without incurring any side-effects. Since they are primarily ideas they cost very little physical resources to manufacture or fabricate. And yet they deliver a lot of value to their recipients.

Like all things that do not look logical at the outset,we under-estimate the power of the placebo effect. A placebo,if administered in a proper fashion, is a great problem solver and a force magnifier of sorts in the hands of a whole host of professionals-the doctors,drug companies,product innovators,leaders,marketing practitioners, advertising & creative professionals, organisational development people etc.

There are very stunning examples of placebos in medical science which prove that certain surgeries or procedures are no more than a placebo. A meta study of several studies involving thousands of patients has come to the conclusion that coronary stents for the heart have a placebo effect. The option of patients taking medication instead of installing a stent is as effective as the procedure of installing a stent. So much for the hue & cry about the exorbitant stent prices,and the need for regulating it in countries like India.

Similarly a study of knee surgery for joint pain was conducted (real partial meniscectomy where they actually cut into the knee). One group of respondents received a real surgery and the other group received a make-believe or a fake knee surgery ( mimicry of actual one with real tools).After surgery, both groups underwent identical physical therapy regimens. Across 12 months of followup, both groups experienced significant and equal improvements.

Human beings have had a rough ride,as an average animal to survive. On the whole, as a species we have been resilient,having out-lasted and out-survived a host of competing species. This harsh journey has been aided by an amazing ability that we have developed in the course of our evolution.It’s an amazing ability we are not really cognizant of. It is the ability to cure ourselves literally and metaphorically.

Placebos raise our expectations.Placebos work by persuading the body to invest more resources in recovery.People consciously believe that the sugar pill placebo will make a headache disappear and lo & behold it often does.

Our evolution has genetically geared us not to trigger our own self cure. We look for an external agent or placebo to trigger our self-cure both at a psychological or at the physiological level.Our hard survival experience tell us that good things do not come easy or ‘there’s no free lunch’.So our logic tells us that an effective placebo must entail some effort or cost in obtaining it. An effective placebo cannot be some commonplace or free stuff,a random sugar pill.An effective placebo is believed to be scarce,a tad expensive.

In the subsequent articles we will look at some of the characteristics of the placebo effect, how it plays out in our lives, and in our business. It is an amazing,under-used & under-exploited effect by medicine, marketing, business and arts. In Fact it seems that business and brands utilise the placebo effect, far more than medicine.