The ‘Nocebo’ Effect: Is Ignorance Bliss?

A variety of pills. (GenBug/Flickr)

A variety of pills. (GenBug/Flickr)

New research shows that talking to your doctor about a medication’s possible side-effects — just hearing about the high blood pressure or abnormal vision — may increase the chance that you actually experience them.

It’s called the “nocebo” effect. It’s the dark-doppelganger of the better known “placebo” effect, where people feel better just because they think they’re taking medication. The “nocebo” effect is yet more evidence of a connection between mind and body — but in this case, the power to do harm.

It presents an unexpected ethical challenge to doctors. The doctrine of informed consent requires physicians to tell patients about the potential risks they face. But what happens if the act of informing may cause suffering as well?



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