The lie that heals: the ethics of giving placebos

Ann Intern Med. 1982 Jul;97(1):112-8. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-97-1-112.


The 170-year-long debate in the medical literature about the ethics of prescribing placebos in medical therapeutics needs to be reevaluated in light of recent placebo research and improved understanding of the placebo effect as an integral part of the doctor-patient relationship. It has traditionally been assumed that deception is an indispensible component of successful placebo use. Therefore, placebos have been attacked because they are deceptive, and defended on the grounds that the deception is illusory or that the beneficent intentions of the physician justify the deception. However, a proper understanding of the placebo effect shows that deception need play no essential role in eliciting this powerful therapeutic modality; physicians can see nondeceptive means to promote a positive placebo response in their patients.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Attitude
  • Deception
  • Ethics, Medical* / history
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Placebos / therapeutic use*


  • Placebos