Economist Dan Ariely finds a new placebo

Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely used to enjoy taking Airborne, until he read reports that it didn't prevent colds. Before he read the reports, he was "97.5% sure" Airborne didn't work, but that tiny bit of doubt was enough for the placebo effect kick in. The news reports killed the placebo effect. He was sad that he didn't have a cold placebo to depend on, but his mother recently sent him a new nostrum and he is happy again. (I think it is Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic "medicine.").

Dan Ariely: Got My Placebo Back


  1. I wish I’d kept the full page Sunday Supplement ad years ago for some cure-all herbal nostrum that contained the line:
    “these compounds are known as spurious placebos, and have been demonstrated to work in hundreds of clinical trials”.

  2. Hes about 2 years too late.. There has been a class action suit about Airborne’s claims, and investigation by the FTC and they have already altered their advertising and packaging.

    I like the sweet 20,000 x 20,000 dual monitors tho!

  3. The Journal of Irreproducible Results once tackled this problem by coming up with a bunch of brand names for placebos. The only one I can remember is Confusalum.

  4. Qi tonic herbs such as ginseng are indicated for improved immunity response; as a preventative, or to end a cold that drags on

  5. oscillococcinum and 3 packets of emergen-c taken at the first inkling of a cold works like a charm for me every time.

  6. Ya know….In one of the paperback Star Trek universes they write about how the Vulcans base their medicine on the study of the placebo effect. If you think it will work you feel better and this gives your immune system a boost. So then the idea would be to just replicate that state of mind without actually buying the sugar pills from the quack.

  7. Just because you think it works, doesn’t mean it does work. The placebo effect doesn’t work on ailments, just symptoms (ie, you think you feel better but you still have cancer).

    1. @12: I suspect you made that up, unless you’re counting things like hypertension as being “just symptoms.” The whole idea of the placebo effect is that it causes actual physiological changes.

    2. Several medicines also work on symptoms but don’t effect underlying conditions (pain relievers, antihistamines for colds, cough suppresants, etc.) Not saying it’s a bad thing that they are effective against symptoms.

      Antihistamines for allergies is an example where the drug is addressing the underlying condition. Or if you want to take it as step back, if you’re allergic to ragweed, the medication that works at the source is herbicide, applied topically to all ragweed in your vicinity.

  8. I was going to say that Airborne isn’t benign enough to be a placebo — but then I rechecked its ingredients.

    Its original formulation had 5,000 IU of Vitamin A, which is already too much for casual ingestion, and then it recommended you take as many as 3 or more pills per day. This is extremely dangerous.

    However, the current formulation has a crazy but smaller allotment: 2000 IU of Vitamin A. Still not a good idea.

    A placebo shouldn’t have the potential to harm your kidneys.

    1. There hasn’t been substantial research to backup these claims. The real world numbers don’t add up.

      “According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System, in 2007, more than 58,000 acute or chronic vitamin overdoses were documented, with 17 major adverse outcomes and 1 death”

      This is from all vitamins, not just Vitamin A.

      For a man weighing 160lbs the estimated dose for Vitamin A toxicity is 1,800,000 IU

  9. Nadreck #10: That’s pretty much what I was thinking about too. If we know the healing effect is purely in the mind, is it so farfetched to think we could use that effect without having to take a sugar pill at all?

    Of course, that would defeat Big Pharma’s purpose, which needs to be defeated anyway.

  10. Many years ago, Adbusters released a sugar pill “antidepressant” called Placebo ™, backing their claims with actual drug company data on all the major antidepressants it out-performed in clinical trials. Fewer side effects, too.

Comments are closed.