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Summary: Placebos can help reduce guilt, even when the placebo is given overtly, a new study reports.
source: University of Basel
People do not always behave impeccably in their dealings with others. When we notice that this has inadvertently caused harm, we often feel guilty. This is an uncomfortable feeling and motivates us to take corrective action, such as apologizing or admitting.
This is why guilt is considered an important moral emotion as long as it is adaptive – in other words, appropriate and proportionate to the situation.
“It can improve interpersonal relationships and is therefore valuable for social cohesion,” says Dylan Seser, a researcher at the Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Basel.
Whether guilt can be reduced by taking a placebo is something researchers at the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology are investigating.
Their findings have now been published in the journal Scientific reports.
Open-label placebos work
To evoke feelings of guilt, test subjects in the study were asked to write about a time when they ignored important rules of behavior or treated someone close to them unfairly, hurt them or even hurt them. The idea was that the study participants should still feel bad about the chosen situation.
Participants were then randomized to three conditions: participants in one group were given placebo pills, deceptively told it was real medicine, while participants in another group were told they were given a placebo. Both groups were told that what they were given would be effective against guilt.
The control group was not given any treatment. The results showed that guilt was significantly reduced in both placebo groups compared to those without medication.
This was also the case when subjects knew they had received a placebo.
“Therefore, our study supports the intriguing finding that placebos work even when administered overtly and that the explanation of the treatment is key to its effectiveness,” said lead study author Dylan Seser. All participants in this study were healthy, had no psychiatric disorders, and were not treated with psychotropic medications.
Clinical applicability has not yet been proven
When feelings of guilt are irrational and persist for longer periods of time, they are considered maladaptive—in other words, out of proportion. These emotions can affect people’s health and, among other things, are a common symptom of depression.
Scientific research shows that placebo effects can be powerful in treating depression. But the discovery that open-label placebos can also be useful for such strong emotions as guilt is new. It stands to reason, says Dylan Sezer, that we should try to control these effects in order to help those affected.
“The use of open-label placebos, in particular, is a promising approach because it preserves patient autonomy by allowing patients to be fully aware of how the intervention works.”
The study results are a promising initial step toward symptom-specific and more ethical treatments for psychological complaints using open-label placebos, Sezer continued.
Further research will need to be done on whether it is possible to treat maladaptive guilt with a placebo. And it is not yet known whether similar effects are possible for other feelings. For Dilan Sezer, one thing is certain: “Using open-label placebos would be a cheap and easy way to treat many psychological and physical complaints.”
About this psychology research news
Original Research: Free access.
“Deceptive and open placebo effects in experimentally induced guilt: a randomized controlled trial in healthy subjects” by Dylan Sezer et al. Scientific reports
Deceptive and open placebo effects in experimentally induced guilt: a randomized controlled trial in healthy subjects
Placebos are known to produce significant effects in many conditions. We investigated sham and open-label placebo effects on guilt, which is important for self-regulation and a symptom of mental disorders.
After experimental guilt induction, healthy subjects were randomized to a sham placebo (DP; n= 35), open-label placebo (OLP; n= 35), or no treatment (NT; n= 39). The primary outcome was guilt responses as assessed by the area under the curve (AUC). Secondary outcomes were shame, guilt, and affect.
We hypothesized that DP and OLP would reduce guilt compared to NT. Guilt responses were higher in the NT group than in the placebo groups (estimate = 2.03, 95% CI = 0.24–3.82, e= 0.53), whereas AUC guilt was not significantly different between placebo groups (estimate = −0.38, 95% CI = −2.52–1.76, e= −0.09).
Placebo is effective in reducing acute guilt responses regardless of placebo administration (ie, overt vs. deceptive).
We also observed narrative-specific effects with significant changes in guilt but not shame, pride, or affect.
These results indicate not only that guilt is susceptible to placebo, but also that placebo can be administered in an ethical and potentially emotion-specific manner.
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