Placebo controls: historical, methodological and general aspects

Journal Article

By: Harald Walach
Publication Name: Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci
Year: 2011

Control conditions were introduced through the trial of Mesmerism in Paris. Placebo controls became codified standard in 1946. Although seemingly unchallenged, there are various problems with this received view. The notion of a placebo is only defined from the negative. A positive notion proposed that placebo effects are effects owing to the meaning an intervention has for an individual. Thus, placebo effects are individualized, whereas standard research paradigms reveal only grossly averaged behaviour. Also, placebo effects are context sensitive, dependent on psychological factors such as expectancy, relief of stress and anxiety, and hence can generate strong and long-lasting treatment effects. These, however, are not predictable. Such a situation can lead to the efficacy paradox: sometimes, sham interventions can be more powerful than proved, evidence-based treatments. This situation has methodological consequences. Placebo-controlled randomized trials reveal only part of the answer, whether an intervention is effective. This is valuable information for regulators, but not necessarily also for patients and of limited value for providers. Hence, I have argued that we need to complement the hierarchical model of evidence by a circular one, in which various methods are employed on equal footing to answer different questions.

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