Personality and Placebos: An Interesting Connection


In the results of most medication trials there is a statement that reads something like, “Although 40% of the research subjects experienced relief with drug x, 32% of those on a placebo also reported symptom relief.”

Why do some people respond to placebos and others do not?

Researchers at the University of Michigan medical school have evidence that personality traits have much to do with a person’s likelihood of responding to placebos as if they were actual medication. Knowing this may help researchers figure out how placebo responses are affecting their study outcomes.

Personality Traits Related to Placebo Receptivity

Only a few personality traits seem to be related to placebo receptivity. About one-fourth of people who respond positively to placebos have the following characteristics:

  • Straightforwardness
  • Resiliency
  • Altruism (helping others without expecting anything in return)

Other traits were measured, including impulsiveness and reward-seeking, but they did not have any relation to an individual’s placebo response.

What made a difference was a person’s ability to manage stress and challenging situations. People with those qualities more easily take outside information, such as a placebo, and somehow convert it into measurable biology.

Benefiting Depression Research

The study was about the experience of pain, but it is thought the results will benefit depression research as well, explaining why some people more readily respond to antidepressant placebos than others. It may also indicate why some people are more likely to create a working partnership with their doctors or therapists, and to share their difficulties more openly.

The Study

  1. Fifty males and females, aged 19 to 38, were given standard tests to measure personality traits.
  2. Each subject was put into a brain scanner (PET) and told that he or she would experience pain in the form of saltwater being injected into a jaw muscle (ouch), and that a pain killer might be injected into the same place.
  3. They were not told, of course, that the pain killer was a placebo.
  4. Statistical analysis determined how each subject’s individual pain ratings were related to the personality traits originally measured.
  5. Subjects’ innate opioid mechanism (built-in pain killers) were affected by the injection of the placebo pain killer in those with the personality traits related to resiliency.
  6. Personality traits did not affect any subject’s level of cortisol (stress hormone) production.

Learn more about the study at: University of Michigan Health System

“For people who are depressed, and especially for those who do not receive enough benefit from medication or for whom the side effects of antidepressants are troubling, the fact that placebos can duplicate much of the effects of antidepressants should be taken as good news. It means that there are other ways of alleviating depression.” - Irving Kirsch, The Emperor’s New Drugs


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