Socially transmitted placebo effects

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Abstract

Medical treatments typically occur in the context of a social interaction between healthcare providers and patients. Although decades of research have demonstrated that patients’ expectations can dramatically affect treatment outcomes, less is known about the influence of providers’ expectations. Here we systematically manipulated providers’ expectations in a simulated clinical interaction involving administration of thermal pain and found that patients’ subjective experiences of pain were directly modulated by providers’ expectations of treatment success, as reflected in the patients’ subjective ratings, skin conductance responses and facial expression behaviours. The belief manipulation also affected patients’ perceptions of providers’ empathy during the pain procedure and manifested as subtle changes in providers’ facial expression behaviours during the clinical interaction. Importantly, these findings were replicated in two more independent samples. Together, our results provide evidence of a socially transmitted placebo effect, highlighting how healthcare providers’ behaviour and cognitive mindsets can affect clinical interactions.

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Chen, P. H. A., Cheong, J. H., Jolly, E., Elhence, H., Wager, T. D., & Chang, L. J. (2019). Socially transmitted placebo effects. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(12), 1295–1305. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0749-5

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