Social psychologist W. J. McGuire describes ‘three stages in the life of an artefact: first it is ignored; then it is controlled for its presumed contaminating effects; and finally, it is studied as an important phenomenon in its own right’. This has been the case with the placebo effect: rather than attempting to repair the cracks of the biomedical box, some researchers have been curious to see what lay inside. In controlling for potential biases, researchers created a ‘biomedical box’ that allowed them to get rid of any possible variable that might ‘threaten the fastidious detection of a predictable cause and effect outcome’. Among these variables were placebo effects. If the treatment consisted of a placebo, there were problems even when patients did get better, as the medical condition of patients who responded to placebos would often be thought of as ‘psychosomatic’ or ‘all in their head’.
Geraldine Lee-Treweek, Tom Heller, Susan Spurr, Hilary MacQueen, Jeanne Katz