Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Nocebo effect

Over the past few posts I've been talking about the Placebo effect and the Roseto effect. A comment to an earlier post points to a relationship between them. As we discuss in our book, these effects occur in forms of social structure organised by the belief in a benevolent power which transcends the individual participants of the social engagement and which recognises their relative positions.

It's also worth considering the negative versions of the two effects. The first of these, the negative Placebo effect, has a name - the Nocebo effect. Just as, under certain conditions, the taking of what is considered a pharmacologically inert substance can produce beneficial effects in the body (reduction of gum swelling after surgery, increase in breathing capacity in asthmatics, etc.), so harmful effects can be produced.

Now, there's no name for the negative version of the Roseto effect, but it is clear that the disintegration of the social fabric in an individualistic consumer society is not conducive to good health. On the other hand, perhaps this is not the best way to formulate a societal parallel to the Nocebo effect. If Placebo and Nocebo effects take place in structured situations, to parallel the Nocebo effect we should look to tight-knit societal relationships capable of producing negative effects.

We do not have to look far to the colourfully named 'Voodoo deaths' studied by Walter Cannon. In his 1942 paper "Voodoo Death', which appeared in the American Anthropologist, Cannon wrote of the victim of a hex:
He stands aghast, with his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, with his hands lifted as though to ward off the lethal medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body. His cheeks blanch and his eyes become glassy and the expression on his face becomes horribly distorted.
Perhaps we can see here one of the reasons Enlightenment thinkers wanted us to leave behind our superstition-laden traditional societal structures. But instead of a call to work these structures into a benevolent form, governed by a common good, we find encouraged something close to today's individualism:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. The Wealth of Nations
In the place of the Deity, Adam Smith invoked the Invisible Hand. While on the face of it this Invisible Hand is not malevolent, how many actions undertaken in its name have dissolved our social bonds?

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