Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Placebo Effect

A strange phenomenon found in medicine is the placebo effect, where a patient’s symptoms improve after being given a completely inert substance (like a sugar pill) under the guise of a medication. The placebo effect is not only limited to pills, but any procedure that is intended for a therapeutic purpose (but does not have any actual therapeutic value). It is believed that the placebo effect is a strong component in many forms of alternative medicine such as homeopathy and faith healing. The placebo effect has been proven to be effective in improving or even curing the symptoms of some diseases such as allergies, asthma, headaches, abdominal pains and even severe illnesses such as heart attacks and cancer. Placebos are particularly effective for psychological symptoms.

There has been much research to determine how the placebo effect works. The leading theories so far are that placebos act to relieve anxiety and condition the patient into a more positive mindset, reducing stress and boosting the body’s natural healing process. This would also explain why placebos are effective in pain relief as perceived pain is amplified by negative emotions. Cognitive dissonance may also play a role, where the patient’s mind believes that since it is receiving treatment, it must be getting “better”, producing a beneficial psychosomatic reaction. Essentially, fooling the mind to believe and expect that it will get better makes the patient actually feel better.

Research into the placebo effect has also revealed some bizarre characteristics of the effect. For example, it has been found that the placebo effect is stronger if there are more pills, the pill is larger, branded or generally looks fancier. Even colour plays a role, with blue pills acting better as depressants (“downers”) and red pills acting better as stimulants (“uppers”). Telling a patient that a placebo will have a certain effect boosts that effect. Human factors such as the doctor’s credibility and confidence or the patient’s expectations and culture are known to drastically change the efficacy of a placebo. What is weirder is that studies have shown that telling a patient that they are being prescribed a placebo will not affect its efficacy, as long as they are told that “it could help them”.

The placebo effect is a great example of how much influence our mind, beliefs and expectations have on our health and our lives. The more positive thoughts and beliefs we have, the healthier we become. The more negative we are, the less effective treatments become. In fact, the same pill that gives people the placebo effect can be used to increase pain and symptoms if it is described in a certain way. This is known as the nocebo effect – the opposite of the placebo effect.


Posted in Philosophy

This Is Not A Pipe

This is a painting named The Treachery of Images, painted by the famous surrealist artist René Magritte in 1929. The picture shows a pipe and below it, the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe, which is French for “This is not a pipe”. However, the painting clearly shows a plain pipe. Is Magritte implying that he did not actually draw a pipe? Is the object actually some other clever invention?

What Magritte is saying is that this is not a pipe, but an image of a pipe. The painting is only a realistic representation of a pipe, but it is not real. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to stuff the pipe and smoke it. Ergo, if Magritte had written “This is a pipe” under the image, he would have been lying.

Magritte was a master of painting realistic pictures and then changing something subtly (or sometimes obviously) to completely change the context, making the picture very surreal. He knew for a fact that his painting of the pipe and the “paradoxical” subtext would rub people the wrong way because people are predictable in some ways. Without the explanation that it is an image of a pipe, many people will experience cognitive dissonance as they see a pipe, yet something is telling them it is not a pipe. This makes people wonder about what Magritte means, until they either figure it out, ask someone about it, or become angry and insult the painting because they have no idea what it means.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Bystander Effect

March 13, 1964 – Queens, New York. A young woman called Kitty Genovese was running from a man chasing her across the parking lot. She screamed for help as she ran from the attacker but not a single person came to her rescue. The attacker stabbed her repeatedly but the police were never alerted to the incident. The astonishing fact is that not only was there someone watching the whole attack – completely able to call the police or intervene – but there were no less than 38 bystanders.

This case sparked a question in social psychology: what prevented those 38 people from stopping a murder happening in front of them? Was it fear of attracting the assaulter’s attention? The bystanders were all watching from their apartment and calling the police would have been simple and discreet, so this was not the reason. Psychologists designed an experiment to study the natural human response as a bystander in an emergency situation.

The experiment was simple: have participants fill a survey in a room and have the helper leave the room. The helper would then stage a collapse with a yell. The participants’ response would then be observed (particularly their response time).
What they found was fascinating. When only one person was in the room, it was very likely he or she would check to see what happened. But with a group (even three would suffice), the response time would dramatically increase, if they responded at all. Simply put: the more bystanders there are, the less likely someone will step in to do something.

The reason is actually simpler than people think. It is not that people are naturally evil and wish to see others suffer; the bystander effect is a consequence of the basic human psyche.
Firstly, people constantly observe others’ responses in a social situation. This creates a paradox where everyone assumes that since no one is doing anything, they themselves do not act either.
Secondly, there is a shared sense of delusion where people think “others will do it”. This is known as “responsibility splitting” and explains why more people lead to less response.
These two factors combined with cognitive dissonance reduce the guilt and burden of the bystander as they consider it alright to not respond as long as no one else does (or if they do, good for them).

Unfortunately, this effect is so powerful that they occur in about 70% of assault cases and also other emergencies such as a person collapsing from a heart attack (i.e. no one rushes to perform CPR). The same effect is seen in cases of suicides (where the person publicly announces their intentions with no one responding) and classrooms (when the teacher asks the class a question).

This is why one of the greatest tips for emergency response is to pick a single person out and instruct them to do something. For example, “You there, in the red jacket, call the ambulance” is much more effective than “Somebody do something”.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


The term brainwashing describes the act of converting a person’s deepest thoughts and ideologies. The term originated from the efforts of the Chinese army to convert US soldiers to communism in the Korean War.

The Chinese first made American prisoners-of-war write essays hailing communism, then gave them some rice, candy or cigarettes as rewards.
The intelligence officers posited that the prisoners would be tormented by the reality of having to act against their ideology (of anti-communism) to receive such petty rewards, and that they would convert their beliefs to escape this. They were right.

A significant number of Americans who were given rewards after writing the essays defected to become communists after the war. This was because they justified their actions, believing that they did not write the essays to get a few candies, but because they truly are communists. Converting them did not require horrific torture or heavy bribery. All the officers needed were some candy, and the powerful psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance to play with a grown man’s mind.

Leon Festinger said: “People are not rational beings, but beings that rationalise themselves”. People easily get caught in the trap of self-justification, and distort reality and even their own memories to accommodate it.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Cognitive Dissonance

When two conflicting ideas exist at the same time in the human mind, it causes uneasiness and discomfort. Human beings instinctively tried to reduce the dissonance, most easily achieved by adaptation and blaming. For example, when a person wants something strongly but cannot attain it, they choose to believe that they do not want it any longer, discarding one idea to dissolve the dissonance.

A famous portrayal of this condition is Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes, which goes as following:

A fox sees a grape on a tree and wants to eat it. However, the grape is too high up, so the fox says “That grape is surely sour.” and turns away.

This fable shows the classic pattern of: Wants something -> finds it unattainable
-> criticises it to reduce their want, and ultimately the dissonance caused by it.

This effect is quite powerful and explains many of mankind’s unique behaviours. As stated above, people try to reduce the dissonance by justification, denial and even blaming a third party to ease their mind.
Interestingly, the act of “justification” is brought on by another human feature: arrogance. Most people consider themselves intelligent and always making the right decisions, ergo when they make a mistake it conflicts with their self-image. Instead of accepting that they made a mistake (thus altering their image), they instead believe that they intended that action. This belief is so strong that they do not even know the justification happened subconsciously.

For example, there is a phenomenon called buyer’s remorse, where a buyer finds a flaw or a better product after buying something, feeling remorse (which is due to the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance). Instead of blaming themselves, people will justify their reasons for buying that product, and paradoxically value that item even more. This shows how cognitive dissonance can be seen everywhere in everyday life.

In short, people cannot accept paradoxes, believe they always make the right decisions, and twist reality and make excuses when it does not fit what they desire. People are fascinating.