Article 076: The danger of the nocebo effect


In 1957, a patient known to the media as ‘Mr Wright’ was diagnosed with cancer in a California hospital. His tumours were the size of oranges and doctors gave him just a few days to live. Over the course of these days Mr Wright heard about Krebiozen, a new drug derived from horse serum, and begged his doctors to prescribe it. They reluctantly agreed. Two days after his injection, Mr Wright’s tumours melted away and he appeared to have made a full recovery. While he was in remission, Mr Wright read one report that denounced the effectiveness of Krebiozen, and he immediately relapsed. His doctors told him not to believe the report, and that they just received a refined, doubly powerful version of Krebiozen. The new drug was really just a saline solution, but the tumours shrank anyway. Months later, Mr Wright read another final, damning report of Krebiozen and died within two days.

The placebo effect can be transformative, but its negative inverse – the nocebo effect can have detrimental repercussions. If we truly believe that something can harm us – or indeed our business – then it probably will. For instance, in a Japanese study on the nocebo effect, researchers rubbed a harmless leaf on the arms of participants, telling them it was poison ivy. Every participant believed that the innocuous leaf would have an effect, and they broke out into a rash as a result.

This effect, similar to the placebo effect, is based on your belief: whatever you believe is true for you.

The nocebo effect can rear its ugly head in the business arena too. Let’s say someone has just destroyed an idea you have for your company, product or service. Even if their critique is completely unfounded, their negative forecast has the potential to affect your own belief. A rebel entrepreneur will counter any negative unfounded feedback and take time to strengthen their own positive beliefs by repetitively visualising the desired outcome. It also may mean getting other opinions that will also strengthen your own positive belief. In this way, logic and reason prevail, while the nocebo effect is appropriately blocked.




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