Expectancy and Conditioning in Placebo Analgesia: Separate or Connected Processes?

Psychol Conscious (Wash D C). 2014 Mar;1(1):51-59. doi: 10.1037/cns0000007.


Expectancy and conditioning are often tested as opposing explanations of placebo analgesia, most commonly by pitting the effects of a conditioning procedure against those of a verbally-induced expectation for pain reduction. However, conditioning procedures can also alter expectations, such that the effect of conditioning on pain might be mediated by expectancy. We assessed the effect of conditioning on expected pain and placebo-induced pain reduction. Participants were told that the treatment (real or sham acupuncture) would affect one side of the arm but not the other. Because a real acupuncture effect would not be specific to a randomly selected side of the arm, any difference in pain between the "treated" and the "untreated" side would be a placebo effect. There were no significant main effects or interactions associated with type of acupuncture (real versus sham). In both groups, conditioning decreased expected pain for "treated" location and also increased the placebo effect (i.e., the difference in pain report between "treated" and "untreated" locations). In addition, mediation analysis lent support to the hypothesis that the effects of conditioning on placebo analgesia may be mediated by expectancy, although the size of this indirect effect requires further study.