Ep 105 – The Placebo Effect – Part 2

Panel Discussion

Posted September 8th, 2014

Part two of the conversation with Chelsea Shields Strayer about The Placebo Effect.

Click here for the full lecture from Dr. Irving Kirsch.


  • Seb

    The way forward is clear:

    We immediately conduct placebo trials for parachutes, bodyarmor and SCUBA gear. Successfully replacing these risky interventions with placebos will:
    a) Silence those placebo-denialists once and for all.
    b) Allow huge savings in military expenditure.

    We should also pursue research into humane execution by nocebo lethal injection.

  • Nick B.

    So, if you will allow me to be honest here, I *almost* turned off the first episode. I don’t know if it was the style, the approach, the fact that I was nearly passing out in the middle of a 70 mile bike ride, or what, but I was screaming all sorts of questions that I wanted to pepper Chelsea with in light of a (perceived?) massive inconsistency between her anthropological approach and her church approach with OW. Matt asked some of them, may he ever be praised, but I had scores more that I promptly forgot once I returned home and had a beer and a nap.

    But since consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds, I soldiered on with Part 2. I am glad I did. Fascinating, wonderful, and worth every frustrated epithet I tossed out during Part 1. It did not hurt that I have secretly hypothesized, without any study, prayer or other effort on my part whatsoever, that the placebo effect is a real physiological phenomenon that shows the power of the mind and cultural influences. Or, to put it in more timely terms, it’s as though a notable Egyptologist has told me that that I correctly translated the Egyptian papyri by sheer dumb luck, the monkey that wrote Hamlet, as it were. Thank you for another fantastic episode (and for boosting my own confirmation bias?).

  • Kelly b

    This was wonderful. I wish we had a placebo effect to rely on as atheists, rituals and such. I wish we could have the kind of social pressure to be a cohesive network an do service without it turning into a group that will be afraid of those who deviate. I wonder if we really can teach our kids to think of others without them giving up their own thoughts…great to hear that others are thinking about these things as well.

  • Tim G

    A really fascinating couple of episodes. After I left the church, I felt like I lost a bit of the edge I had as a believer. I knew that belief gave me a lot of artificial confidence in myself, but I never made the connection of the actual biological effects of it all. One thing I would love to hear Chelsea delve into a little deeper if/when she comes back is if there are any proven techniques for replicating the placebo effect in your life as someone who no longer believes or participates in church.

    • Bryan Wales

      Yes, I was thinking the same thing. The people that leave the church are like participants in a drug study that find out they are in the placebo group. Surely, knowing you are being given a placebo must effect the results. I don’t see how you could mentally make the placebo work again after finding out it wasn’t real to begin with.

  • Kyle

    Placebo’s are fascinating. I actually use them on my kids for minor things that I think don’t deserve tylenol. Sugar pills are great for that. My mom used to do the same thing for me.
    I was intrigued by the idea that giving a placebo can be better than actual medication in some cases. I have some questions about that.

    First, how would this be effected if everyone in a society knew and accepted these ideas, and placebos were openly used and even advertised? Would it still work?
    Second, would it be possible to knowingly give myself a placebo and get any positive benefit?

  • JT

    Essential oils … I had never heard of this until last week. Here’s my story.

    My wife invited two of the sister missionaries over to help her paint our spare bedroom. When I came home I found one of them eating my Cheese Doodles and the other one – a Utah blonde – gushing about how her “essential oil” solved her insomnia problem. My wife said, “JT, maybe it’ll help you sleep better.”

    I thought to myself, “Well, maybe, but I kinda enjoy that extra quiet time listening to Infants or Thrones, the Bible Geek, and what not.”

    I turned to Sister Blondie and asked, “Hey sister, you got any of that on you?”

    She handed me a dark glass vial, about the same size as the one I used to carry nonessential oil in.

    “Lavendar” she said with that “I have a testimony” smile.

    “Where do I put it sister.”

    “On the bottom of your foot” (I’m not kidding)

    “Niiiiiiice,” I said.

    That night, I carefully dripped the sweet unction onto the top of my arch. I let the tiny glistening stream meander toward the ball of my foot … then, at the last agonizing moment … I caught it with my middle finger and rubbed it in … deeply.

    “What are you doing honey?”

    “Uuhhh … just … uh … administering the essential oil honey … to help me .. you know … sleep better.”

    The warmth of my fingers released its spicy sweet somnolent bouquet. I quickly slid my feet – and my full anticipation – under the covers, hoping to trap every innocuous molecule.

    I waited .. and waited …

    Then I reached for my ipod and checked for new episodes.

    • baura

      Essential oils really work . . . they really do . . . Scout’s Honor! . . .You just have to keep at it over and over . . . . you probably weren’t sincere . . . you probably didn’t do it with a sincere heart, with real intent. etc. etc.

  • Ginger

    I love you Chelsea! And of course all the infants panelists. I would not consider myself an intellectual in the slightest but I felt the intense desire to be one when listening to both Placebo Effect podcasts. I’m compelled to ask a question or two, which is making my hands shake to even write them up. But life is short so here goes…
    From the information given on evolution, humans need a social group for survival, which I completely identify with. Though I have not taken Bob’s mormon awesomeness scale quiz, I’m pretty sure I’d be 80 or above because of my upbringing. I lived in Utah up until January of this year (2014), when I moved to Mordor?, Arizona, which was also the time that my family found out that I no longer considered myself or our children members of the church. So what I’m feeling now is that I no longer have a social group. Though I feel like I’ve been freed and have enjoyed life more than ever before, I also feel a huge void and perceive myself as an outcast. So my question to you is, is there hope of survival for the outcast? I have my husband and my daughters, but is that enough? I think back on my wedding showers , baby showers, baptism, sicknesses and I always had a huge network of support during those times. My girls will most likely not have that. Am I starting a pedigree of outcasts? I don’t know how to replace what I’ve lost, but I know that due to my discoveries and change of heart I can never go back. Suggestions?
    My second question… The church had answers to every single weighty question that we come across in life, the ultimate placebo/non placebo. I have the desire to replace that with the discoveries science offers and the beauty that it entails, but I find that I don’t have a scientific mind at all. I’m currently reading “Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan and I’m in love with him, but half of what he says goes straight up to the cosmos and not even remotely close to what my brain can comprehend. Plus, being a scientist seems like a lot of observation and testing things over and over again and a wee bit boring to someone like me. But I would love to understand it better and want to replace my religious nuttery (not that there’s anything wrong with that) with science. It’s church. So my question to you is, where is a good starting point? I have 3 kids ages 8-3 so not a ton of time and no extra funds to further my education, but I feel a hunger that is not easy for me to feed. Is there literature, websites, lectures, etc. that you would suggest?
    I do not listen to podcasts unless it is Infants on Thrones. I’ve tried. You guys entertain me, inspire me, ease my pain, make me feel normal and give me new perspective. Thank you.

    • css

      Question 1: First of all, you are completely correct and absolutely normal. The concept of a “nuclear” family or a marriage that met all of your social needs is a 21st concept. Never before have we seen such disconnected societies and it has enormous impact on one’s physical and mental health. Your social group= those you interact with on a daily basis: those you live with, by, see, etc. This includes your grocer, neighbor, postman, teacher, passing car driver, etc. In the past, these wouldn’t all be strangers. In fact, they would probably be related to you. So the fact that we are so far removed from each other is a problem of modern life.

      Secondly, you are in luck. Never before (and this is my assessment) has Mormonism had such a rich post-Mormon community. Even as recently as 2003 when Margaret Toscano got excommunicated, she was largely all alone. Now, there are not only local communities all around the US of post mormons but there is a rich, healthy and quite supportive post-mormon online community that you can talk to daily. In fact, in AZ they have a VERY active and ward-like open Mormons group with numbers into the hundreds. What I’ve seen in the past decade is that this extended social support has allowed people to leave and still retain some level of friends, which previous generations did not have the luxury of. I would argue that 10 yrs ago more people would have stayed for the social aspect alone. That social part is so huge. I want that for my daughter as well. I just have to weigh that against the messages that she will receive. It’s a hard decision (or rather set of decisions). I’m sorry I don’t have better answers other than that if we can build these really strong post-mormon communities with people already committed and knowledgeable about how to sacrifice for the group, we really could replace some of what we leave behind when/if we leave the church.

    • css

      Question 2: Science is FUN!! I would start with things like The Earth and Cosmos videos. They are well done, educational, aesthetically pleasing, and enjoyable. I honestly feel “the spirit” when I watch stuff like that. I do, however, have a side of me that reads gossip magazines and watches crappy movies so when I sit down at netflix a documentary is not always what I want in my down time. So I get that it can be hard. That said, I am a nerd. I love learning this stuff. Some of my favorite books are science non-fiction written well: “Social” by Matthew Lieberman, “Survival of the Sickest” by Sharon Moalem, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, etc.

      One thing my mother did well (and this isn’t about science, but it is about exposure to world history and paradigm opening) was rent all of the seasons of “Roots” and we watched one VHS video a day. We would run home from school excited to see what happened and learning at the same time (unbeknownst to us). It was a really cool experience to have as a family and we discussed it afterwards to better process slavery and racism. If I were you, I would start there. Find well written educational but interesting movies or short clips (TED talks and TEDU 3 min educational animated videos- and I say this not only as a TED fellow because they really are so great and you could spend the next year just exploring) and watch what is interesting, then discuss it.

      Last thing, and I hope any of this is helpful, but if you have the opportunity or means I recommend living abroad for 6 months or longer. We never had money (CES) but my parents encouraged us to go on a study abroad program. I had to work hard to earn that money, but there is nothing that opens up your worldview as much as living in another country for long enough to adapt and then coming home and having to readapt to your home culture. It is life changing. I’ve never known a bigot who has lived (and really lived, not just replacing provo culture in a foreign local mission style) for an extended period of time abroad (Canada doesn’t count) ;).

      Good luck!

      • Ginger

        Thank you so much. That is very helpful. I have thoroughly enjoyed Comos and have been looking for something similar since I’ve run out of episodes. I’ll definitely try those other programs and books. I Love your suggestion to live abroad. I’m mad at myself for getting married at 19 and not doing something as life learning as that, on my own before jumping from my father to my husband, that I love dearly. I’m glad to have that bit of advice for my kids, if I can’t find the means to do it myself. Though that will be one of my future goals.
        I am very interested in the post-Mormon groups. I have met so many active Mormons here that I feel tempted to bring some over to the dark side 😉 just so there’s more common ground. My family is always telling me since we’ve left that they’re worried about how our kids will turn out without the support of the church. As if we don’t worry about our kids turning out decent since we’ve left! But they do have a point. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. The fact that you sacrificed your time to help a complete stranger is what helped the most.

  • Great interview boys! And Chelsea’s research is fascinating all by itself, but with her Mormon background it’s another layer of interest. I hope she’s still checking comments because I have a question for her!

    Chelsea: In your research of evolutionary anthropology have you delved much into the evolution of patriarchy from a sociocultural/anthropological point of view? I ask because in my (very limited) studies of women in North American indigenous religions, it is clear that they experienced much more egalitarian lives pre-colonization. It was the Europeans that introduced patriarchy to those cultures (for the most part). And is there a parallel to that in your studies in Africa?

    • css

      Patriarchy isn’t new to western or precolonial civilizations. Though we do see a greater frequency of matrilineal (lineage traced through the maternal line), matrilocal (children live with the maternal family) and even a handful of matriarchal (women in decision making positions of power) types of societies in the global south and pre-conquest eras these are still very limited and no where near as comprehensive as patriarchal societies. This also is just going back about ~11kya. Further back, we are extrapolating and see little evidence of matriarchies. We do, however, see a handful of species that have the equivalent of a matriarchy as the type of patriarchy we see in humans: bonobos and the spotted hyena. There are a few fascinating reasons why (mostly to do with sex and a fake make phallus) but those could be a podcast in and of itself! One thing that is fascinating– and incredibly important as we begin to discuss religious gender discrimination– is that societies that fared a little better with women’s status (and this is debatable) tended to have polytheistic or animistic religions which allowed a number of divine female roles and powers. That said, the Greeks had polytheism and I’ve never heard such terrible sexism in all of western writing, so……

  • Ken

    So how can a skeptic harness the power of placebo to the extent that true believer of anything can?

  • Pingback: Unction, Unction, What’s Your Placebo Function? | JTurnonMormonism()

  • Christina

    I heard this podcast while coming home from a week of helping my daughter with her new baby. We had more than a few discussions, in the middle of the night, about spoiling a baby. This podcast was so appropriate.
    I wanted to send her the quote about how babies maniuplate mothers but in my search for it to be written somewhere on the internet pulled up nothing. Is there a transcript? or does Chelsea have a paper I could read online?
    Great podcast by the way. My husband and I were comparing listening to Chelsea as opposed to Sheri Dew. Both interesting people, but a vast difference in content. One is content rich and one is thin.

  • Don

    The information presented and discussions in these two podcast was phenomenal! The thing I like most about the Infants and guests is the level of intellectual thought that always serves to broaden my own understanding of the topics while having an awareness of my handicaps from a shared Mormon cultural experience.

    I just came out of a 26 year marriage to a woman who put the “Alter” in Alternative Medicine! She uses & peddles Doterra essential oils and Natures Sunshine herbal remedy’s. She has seen Homeopaths and Naturopaths, Iridologists, CranioSacral Practicioners & Chiropractors. She has had her “aura” read and energy circuits cleared. She has petitioned the help of crystals and muscle testing and various healers who “have a gift”. Most of her suppliers of these “drugs of choice” are faithful members of the LDS Church.

    In order to keep peace in the marriage I have also partaken in many of these modalities with absolutely no positive effect from any of them, while at the same time she raved about their benefits for both herself and our children. Through self awarness and research I came to the conclusion about 10 years ago that this divergence in experience had to either be from my wife being psychotic or there had to be a placebo effect at work…she believe in all the “hocus pocus” and its power to heal, and I did not. Ergo, it had benefits for her and not for me. But I still had difficulty in shaking the other possibility that she was in some way mentally challenged to choose to believe in such a wide range of utter nonsense.

    Chelsea has opened my mind to the idea that my ex-wife and those like her are not less-than myself becasue they are more willing to believe without rational reason – they are just different, and perhaps even better off in some ways becasue they have options at their disposal that I do not. This is a new thought, and I am not sure it will last. Either way, I am who I am, and will not be cajoled into believing something that is so utterly without rational validity regardless of others belief in its benefits.

    Oh, wait…I was a True Believing Mormon Dude for how long?!

  • Jared

    Chelsea, Eye Opening stuff. Can you give some insight into the best way to give priesthood blessings? 🙂