Partial reinforcement, extinction, and placebo analgesia

Pain. 2014 Jun;155(6):1110-1117. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2014.02.022. Epub 2014 Mar 3.


Numerous studies indicate that placebo analgesia can be established via conditioning procedures. However, these studies have exclusively involved conditioning under continuous reinforcement. Thus, it is currently unknown whether placebo analgesia can be established under partial reinforcement and how durable any such effect would be. We tested this possibility using electrocutaneous pain in healthy volunteers. Sixty undergraduates received placebo treatment (activation of a sham electrode) under the guise of an analgesic trial. The participants were randomly allocated to different conditioning schedules, namely continuous reinforcement (CRF), partial reinforcement (PRF), or control (no conditioning). Conditioning was achieved by surreptitiously reducing pain intensity during training when the placebo was activated compared with when it was inactive. For the CRF group, the placebo was always followed by a surreptitious reduction in pain during training. For the PRF group, the placebo was followed by a reduction in pain stimulation on 62.5% of trials only. In the test phase, pain stimulation was equivalent across placebo and no placebo trials. Both CRF and PRF produced placebo analgesia, with the magnitude of initial analgesia being larger after CRF. However, although the placebo analgesia established under CRF extinguished during test phase, the placebo analgesia established under PRF did not. These findings indicate that PRF can induce placebo analgesia and that these effects are more resistant to extinction than those established via CRF. PRF may therefore reflect a novel way of enhancing clinical outcomes via the placebo effect.

Keywords: Conditioning; Expectancy; Extinction; Pain; Partial reinforcement; Placebo effect.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Analgesia / methods*
  • Analgesia / psychology
  • Extinction, Psychological* / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain Measurement / methods*
  • Pain Measurement / psychology
  • Placebo Effect*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation / methods*
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation / psychology
  • Young Adult