Meaning works.

Daniel Moerman, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, emphasizes the importance of meaning in soliciting a placebo response. He actually prefers to use the term ‘Meaning Response’. According to Moerman, people respond to the meaning of what they have been told about their treatment. (Moerman and Jonas, 2002).

It appears that a more meaningful treatment is better able to solicit support from our mind and body. More about how our subconscious mind and body support this can be found in the chapter “How Placebos Work”. For now, here are some studies that demonstrate the importance of meaning for placebo responses.

The Placebo Effect of Brands

Brands are one of the most effective means to instantly convey a richness of meaning. Depending on the cultural setting and exposure to media, brands trigger emotions, expectations, and meaning. In a study that looked at the placebo effect of brands in the US, migraine patients were randomly assigned to one of four treatment groups:

Treatment Efficacy Aspirin Placebo
Branded +++ ++
Non-branded ++ +


The branded and non-branded aspirin versions worked better for pain relief than the placebos. However, branding improved pain relief for aspirin as well as for the placebo. (Branthwaite & Cooper, 1981)

The Placebo Effect of Explanations

In a different study, pain patients were assigned to one of two groups. One group was given an injection of saline solution (pure placebo) and were told that it was helpful for pain relief. The other group received the same saline solution without explanation. Only the group that received the explanation experienced a reduction in pain. (Benedetti & Amanzio, 1997)

The Placebo – Diagnosis Effect

Howard Brody a family physician who has also written much about the clinical use of placebos, emphasizes that a doctor’s medical diagnosis supplies meaning to a patient’s symptoms and probably plays an important role for a patient’s placebo response (Brody & Brody, 2000).