Reconsidering the placebo response from a broad anthropological perspective

Jennifer Jo Thompson, Cheryl Ritenbaugh, Mark Nichter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


This paper considers how the full range of human experience may catalyze a placebo response. The placebo effect has been characterized as something to control in clinical research, something to cultivate in clinical practice and something present in all healing encounters. We examine domains in which the term 'placebo' is used in discourse: clinical research, clinical practice, media representations of treatment efficacy and lay interpretations of placebo-an underresearched topic. We briefly review major theoretical frameworks proposed to explain the placebo effect: classical conditioning, expectancy, the therapeutic relationship and sociocultural 'meaning.' As a corrective to what we see as an overemphasis on conscious cognitive approaches to understanding placebo, we reorient the discussion to argue that direct embodied experience may take precedence over meaning-making in the healing encounter. As an example, we examine the neurobiology of rehearsing or visualizing wellness as a mode of directly (performatively) producing an outcome often dismissed as a 'placebo response.' Given body/mind/emotional resonance, we suggest that the placebo response is an evolutionarily adaptive trait and part of healing mechanisms operating across many levels-from genetic and cellular to social and cultural.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)112-152
Number of pages41
JournalCulture, Medicine and Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2009


  • Embodiment
  • Evolutionary medicine
  • Healing
  • Local biology
  • Performance
  • Placebo

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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