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Placebo Effect Sways India

The national mood has been on the upswing under the Dr Manmohan Singh palliative

I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the placebo effect, but it seems to be the best explanation for a lot of things that are happening right now. A placebo is defined in the dictionary as a ‘substance containing no medication and prescribed to reinforce a patient's expectation to get well,’ or as ‘an inactive substance or preparation used as a control in a test to determine the effectiveness of a medicinal drug.’

In medical experiments, a certain number of test patients are not given the real treatment but are instead given an inert substance which has no curative power. Apparently, some of those who are given placebos also get cured or show improvement. Obviously, this happens because of what could be called a ‘mind-over-matter’ effect. People expect to be cured, so they get cured. In medical research, the placebo effect is well-documented. Some researchers extend the meaning of placebo to anything that improves a patients’ expectation of getting healed, including just meeting a doctor. I’ve experienced this myself — I visit a doctor and sometimes even before I’ve taken the medicine he has prescribed, I start feeling better. The doctor himself is a placebo.

This phenomenon apparently extends to non-medical doctors also. For example, Dr. Manmohan Singh. What has been happening all around us since about noon on May 16 appears to be a giant, nation-wide placebo effect. And although this effect is most visible in the stock markets, it exists in the real economy too. One friend whose business got into trouble in October has just made a car purchase which he had postponed last year. That may or may not be wise, but it’s a few lakh worth of real money being spent on the expectation that the doctor will make things better. Even more tellingly, I know someone who got sacked from a failing business in November and has now decided not to take up a stopgap job he has been offered. The election results have made him so sure of getting a better job soon that he has turned down an offer that would have moved him down a few rungs on the job ladder.

As a financially conservative person, I would have called such actions foolish, but when I see the change in mood around me, I’m not so sure. In hard facts, nothing much has actually improved yet. But if enough people act as if things will get better, then they will. I guess I’d better not lay down a litany of real problems because the one thing that is necessary for a placebo to work is the patients’ belief that the medicine is real. In fact, medical research is conducted using what is called a ‘double-blind’ procedure whereby even the researchers who are administering a treatment don’t know whether it’s a placebo or the real thing. The UPA government is apparently planning to follow the same procedure.

And then there’s also the so-called nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect. If you believe that you have a disease, then you’ll start exhibiting its symptoms. Perhaps what we’re seeing is as much an effect of the disappearance of the nocebo effect of the communists. As the hedge fund manager Samir Arora said on TV after the election results, not having to see Mr. Karat on TV on May 16th is by itself worth at least 500 points of the Sensex.