The Application of Persuasion Theory to Placebo Effects

Int Rev Neurobiol. 2018:138:113-136. doi: 10.1016/bs.irn.2018.01.004. Epub 2018 Feb 23.


Placebo effects, or positive outcomes resulting from expectations about a treatment, are powerful components of modern medical care. In this chapter, we suggest that our understanding of placebo effects may benefit from more explicitly connecting this phenomenon to the existing empirical psychological literature on persuasion. Persuasion typically involves an attempt to bring about a change in beliefs or attitudes as a result of providing information on a topic. We begin by providing a brief overview of the psychological literature on placebo effects. We then point to connections between this literature and research on persuasive communication. Although some links have been made, these initial connections have predominantly relied on classic theories of persuasion rather than on more contemporary and comprehensive models. Next, we describe a modern theory of persuasion that may facilitate the study of placebo effects and analyze two issues pertinent to the literature on placebo effects from the lens of this model. Specifically, we consider how and when characteristics of a practitioner (e.g., variables such as perceptions of a practitioner's confidence or competence) can influence the magnitude of placebo effects, and how modern persuasion theory can help in understanding the durability of placebo effects over time. We conclude that examining placebo effects as an outcome of persuasive communication would be a fruitful line of future research.

Keywords: Attitude change; Elaboration likelihood model; Nocebo effect; Persuasion; Placebo effect.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Persuasive Communication*
  • Placebo Effect*
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Psychological Theory*