Placebo reduces guilt

summary: A new study reports that placebos can help reduce feelings of guilt, even when the placebo is given openly.

Source: University of Basel

People do not always behave flawlessly in relation to others. When we notice that this has inadvertently caused harm, we often feel guilty. This is an uncomfortable feeling and motivates us to take remedial action, such as apologizing or being possessive.

This is why guilt is an important moral emotion, as long as it is adaptive—in other words, appropriate and proportionate to the situation.

“It can improve interpersonal relationships, and is therefore valuable for social cohesion,” says Dylan Sezer, a researcher at the University of Basel’s Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.

Whether guilt can be reduced by taking a placebo is something researchers at the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology have been exploring.

Their findings have now been published in the journal Scientific reports.

Open-label placebos work

In order to elicit feelings of guilt, test subjects in the study were asked to write about a time when they ignored important rules of behavior, treated someone close to them unfairly, or offended or harmed them. The idea was that study participants should still feel bad about the chosen situation.

The participants were then randomly assigned to three conditions: Participants in one group were given a dummy pill and were deceptively told that this was a real drug, while participants in another group were told they were receiving a placebo. Both groups were told that what was given to them would be effective against guilt.

The control group was not given any treatment at all. The results showed that feelings of guilt were significantly reduced in both placebo groups compared to those who did not take medication.

This was also the case when the participants learned that they had received a placebo.

“Our study thus supports the intriguing finding that placebos work even when they are given overtly, and that interpretation of treatment is key to its effectiveness,” says the study’s lead author, Dylan Ceaser. All participants in this study were healthy, did not have psychiatric disorders and were not treated with psychotropic substances.

Clinical application not yet proven

When feelings of guilt are irrational and persist for longer periods of time, they are considered maladaptive – in other words, disproportionate. These feelings can affect people’s health and are also, among other things, a common symptom of depression.

This shows the outline of two heads
When feelings of guilt are irrational and persist for longer periods of time, they are considered maladaptive – in other words, disproportionate. The image is in the public domain

Scientific studies have shown that placebo effects can be powerful in treating depression. But the discovery that open-label placebos can also be helpful for strong feelings like guilt are new. It makes sense, says Dylan Caesar, to try to harness these effects to help those affected.

“Open-label placebo administration, in particular, is a promising approach, as it maintains patient independence by allowing patients to be fully informed of how the intervention is working.”

The study results are a promising first step in the direction of symptom-specific, more ethical treatments for psychiatric complaints using open-ended placebos, Seiser continues.

More research needs to be done on whether maladaptive guilt can be treated with placebos. It remains unknown whether similar effects are also possible with other emotion states. For Dylan Caesar, one thing is certain: “Using open-label placebos will be an inexpensive, straightforward treatment option for many psychological and physical complaints.”

About this research psychology news

author: Nomi Kern
Source: University of Basel
Contact: Naomi Kern – University of Basel
picture: The image is in the public domain

See also

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Original search: open access.
Deceptive and open-ended placebo effects in experimentally induced guilt: a randomized controlled trial in healthy subjects.Written by Dylan Caesar et al. Scientific reports


Deceptive and open-ended placebo effects in experimentally induced guilt: a randomized controlled trial in healthy subjects.

Placebos are known to have significant effects in many cases. We examined the sham and deceptive placebo effects on guilt, which is important for self-regulation and a symptom of mental disorders.

After experimental induction of guilt, healthy subjects were randomized to a deceptive placebo (DP; n= 35), an open-label placebo (OLP; n= 35), or no treatment (NT; n= 39). The primary outcome was guilt responses assessed by the area under the curve (AUC). The secondary outcomes were shame, guilt, and emotion.

We hypothesized that DP and OLP would reduce guilt compared to NT. Guilt responses were higher in the NT group than in the placebo groups (estimation = 2.03, 95% CI = 0.24–3.82, Dr= 0.53), while the guilt AUC did not differ significantly between the placebo groups (estimation = −0.38, 95% CI = −2.52–1.76, Dr= −0.09).

Placebos are effective in reducing acute guilt responses, regardless of placebo administration (that is, open versus deceptive).

Furthermore, we observed narrative-specific effects with significant changes in guilt but not shame, pride, or affect.

These findings suggest not only that guilt can be amenable to placebo but also that placebo administration can be done in an ethical and possibly emotion-specific way.

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