The Journal Gazette
Saturday, August 01, 2020 1:00 am

The placebo effect

Commitment to your chosen cause requires action deeper than a Facebook like

Dr. William Argus

Mark Twain said it is easier to fool a man than to convince him that he has been fooled. Placebos relieve suffering with harmless homeopathic treatments. Placebos work by fooling patients into thinking they are receiving a real medicine that provides more than just a psychological effect.

Societies can also suffer.

America is suffering through the COVID-19 quarantine, police brutality, rioting and loss of civility in public discourse. We seek actionable solutions to alleviate the suffering. And just as patients think placebos are “real,” we often think our actions are more effective than they really are.

We protest to make a difference, but change comes slowly if at all. In our polarized world, we go home at night to social media and “like” the causes we support. If we click on “Black lives matter,” it makes us feel better about our social consciousness. If we click on “support the police,” it makes us feel better about our respect for law and order.

But neither effects a social change. These placebos make us feel better by giving us the illusion of change when there is none.

To support our local health care teams during the COVID-19 crisis, the Blue Angels flew over some hospitals. Really? How did that help anyone? Do you really think wearing a pink ribbon is curing breast cancer? Did the ice bucket challenge do anything except make us feel better?

All of these behaviors are placebos.

Interestingly, placebos work best when associated with flair and drama. Historically, Anton Mesmer is credited with the first homeopathic remedies. He treated “animal magnetism” with many theatrics including decorated rooms, symbols, music and his famous purple robe. The word “mesmerize” was coined in his honor.

There are parallels with marches and rallies occurring today that mesmerize crowds with inspirational speeches, motivational music and dramatic displays. Collectively, they make attendees feel better without accomplishing much.

My mother used to pour Merthiolate on my skinned knees, encouraging me to bear the sting because “medicines that don't hurt, don't work!” No pain, no gain.

Placebos, by definition, don't hurt. They only make us feel better. They don't address the source of the pain. Placebos relieve our suffering by giving us the illusion of progress, the illusion of doing something “real.”

Protests, marches and rallies may feel real to us, but societal change seldom ensues.

My mother had another saying about charitable deeds: “You have to give until it hurts.”

If we are going to make effective change in our world, our therapies must do more than just make us feel better about ourselves. “Liking” our favorite cause on Facebook is painless, but engaging with those who differ from us is difficult and stressful.

Marches can raise awareness of other people's suffering, which is a necessary first step. But real progress requires action, and that will demand compromise that hurts.

Wrapping ourselves in the flag while the fireworks dazzle the sky is painless patriotism. And whether you stand for the flag or take a knee, neither by itself will result in social change.

Placebos fail us by preventing connection with others. Placebos prevent the open dialogue and empathy that can lead to the necessary compromise.

When we connect and suffer with one another, we can begin the hard work of finding compromise. If we are not willing to compromise until it hurts, we are just fooling ourselves.

Dr. William Argus is a Fort Wayne opthalmologist.

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