I know there are tests to check if a single drug is useful or useless by arranging groups of people where half receive the actual drug and half receive the placebo, but those are testing the drug, not the patient.

My question is regarding a test for the opposite (a single patient with a group of pills, from which half would be the actual drug and half would be placebos) It sounds like I just answered my own question, or at least I designed the base experiment, but my question is not on the logic of such experiment, the real question is, are there any serious studies like the one I just described?

I'm aware that knowing I'm testing myself may spoil the whole point. So if you can't be unaware of the fact that you are being tested, you can introduce some entropy to the timing of real dosage vs placebo. So maybe a machine-assisted test? A machine would give me pills, some days it would be the real formula, some other days it would be a placebo. Every day I'd have to measure the effects, so it would have to be a pill with immediate but temporal effects, something not crucial for my well being, a drug I don't really need, like a muscle relaxant (e.g. Carisoprodol, maybe?) and I would have to measure the results, maybe with electrodes or anything that register actual measurement and not just my biased perception; "I feel relaxed" is not very scientific.

I find it funny, but also interesting. Has science found a proven way to self-test on placebo effect?

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    I think you might need to be more specific. Are you testing a specific medication, what are the circumstances?
    – Mary ML
    Apr 6, 2015 at 22:54
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    I mean there are tests to check if a single drug is useful or useless by arranging groups of people where half receive the actual drug and half receive the placebo. So the drug is being tested not the patient. My question is to test the opposite, I'm interested in knowing if I can test a single patient... with a group of pills, from wich half would be the actual drug and half would be placebos... I think I just answered my own question, or at least I designed the base experiment... anyways, the real question is, are there any serious studies like the one I just described? Apr 6, 2015 at 23:07
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    @PatrickHoefler done as you asked, please vote to reopen my question :) Apr 7, 2015 at 18:19
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    I still think this question should be closed, because the answer will not impact the OP's health in any way. It's not about health, it's about a study effect.
    – JohnP
    Apr 8, 2015 at 2:20
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    Knowing about your current health state is the 1st step to improving your health. As with any system you need to test what works and what doesn't before intervening. So yes, it does help me in my ability to make an impact on my health and it would also help others who read this. Apr 8, 2015 at 5:13

2 Answers 2


No, there isn't, not in any meaningful way.

"The placebo effect" is an umbrella term, used primarily in the media/pop science. That isn't to say it isn't real or valid, but it covers outcomes from a great many different studies.

In drug trials, the effects of a drug are often compared to a placebo - a sugar pill/saline injection - even placebo surgery.

The placebo "effect" is what happens when you compare a placebo to nothing at all, and the patients on the placebo have statistically better outcomes.

The key points here are:

  • The placebo effect is a feature of large studies. You can't perform a large study on a single patient. In individual cases, there is simply too much variability - you can never know if a difference in outcome was due to "the placebo effect" or some other variable.

  • You cannot perform the two halves of the study (placebo/nothing at all) yourself. You would have to run them sequentially, i.e. on different instances of cold/flu. This adds more variables.

  • The placebo effect requires you to not know you're taking a placebo (patients in these studies are not told what it is about, they're just given pills/injections etc.) I can't think of a way you could feasibly set up a scenario where you were A) testing yourself for "the placebo effect", and B) not aware you are being given a placebo.

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    Thank you, I now understand why my question was not easy to answer. I didn't understand "the placebo effect" was an umbrella term that doesn't necessarily indicate that a patient got better because of psychological bias, but a patient can get better for a lot of reasons and placebos are used only as a method to discard a particular drug being tested as causality for patient's health improvement. I'll leave my question there not to display my previous ignorance but just so others might be educated as I was. (I'm still interested in the bot experiment for the psychological case scenario. LOL) Apr 9, 2015 at 7:05


The placebo effect is a very interesting thing to study. To keep this scientific, though, let's divide your question into three addressable points:

  1. Does the placebo effect work?
  2. Does the placebo effect work on you?
  3. Can the placebo effect be scientifically tested?

If each of these points can be resolved as true, then it would be fair to call the question answered. Also, at the bottom you'll find some suggestions for a placebo self-test.

What is a Placebo, What is the Placebo Effect?

A placebo is a treatment that looks like a regular treatment, but is actually an inactive look-alike, and not a medicine. Placebos are used in medicine to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments, as often some of the benefit from a treatment will actually be due to the placebo effect. In a controlled trial, some trial subjects are given the treatment being tested, and some are given placebos. Ideally, the subjects can't tell the difference, and at the end of the study, the effectiveness of the drug can be compared to that of the placebo.1

In practice, this often means sugar or cornstarch pills, but can extend to other treatments as well. In fact, even surgical procedures can be placebos. Known as sham surgeries, surgical placebos often involve the administration of anesthesia followed by several incisions similar to those that would be made during typical surgery.2

What is the placebo effect that makes all of this necessary? The placebo effect is the improvement in a medical condition resulting from the belief that one is being treated, rather than the effectiveness of the treatment itself.3 Because patients tend to believe they are being given an effective treatment, this belief itself contributes to improvement in condition.4

Does the Placebo Effect Work?

A number of examples can be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of the placebo effect. Several of them conclude that not only is the placebo effect powerful, it is sometimes more powerful than the medication alternatives.5

A migraine study conducted in 2014 compared the effect of the migraine treatment rizatriptan (sold by Merck Pharmaceuticals as Maxalt) to a placebo, by administering envelopes with drugs in them to migraine sufferers. The subjects were instructed to take the medication in case of migraine. The envelopes came in pairs labeled 'Placebo', 'Maxalt' or 'Placebo or Maxalt', however, each pair actually had one placebo envelope and one Maxalt envelope. Yet, subjects reported the same level of pain relief from placebo labeled Maxalt as from Maxalt labeled placebo, suggesting that placebos are sometimes as effective as actual medication. Patients also reported pain relief from the placebo labeled placebo, suggesting that even one who knowingly takes a placebo can still be subject to the effect.6

A study specifically designed to evaluate the placebo effect compared fake acupuncture to fake pills, a comparison of two placebos. Subjects suffering from arm pain were either prescribed acupuncture or pain medication, but the pain medication was cornstarch pills, and the acupuncture used needles with tips that retract into themselves upon touching skin, like stage knives. The subjects were warned about possible side effects of the treatment, with the side effects mentioned taken from actual side effects of either real treatment. Interestingly, one third of patients reported the exact side effects they were warned about, including excessive drowsiness in the pill group, and redness and inflammation in the acupuncture group, even though the skin wasn't actually pierced. Some patients in both groups reported extreme pain, but more interestingly, most of the subjects reported extreme pain relief.7

Does the Placebo Effect Work on You?

An effective method of proving widespread viability of the placebo effect is showcasing its virality, quite literally. When one believes he is sick, and starts developing actual symptoms as a result, the medical community refers to this condition as 'psychogenic illness,' or actual illness spawned from the belief of illness. When this believed illness is believed to be contagious, anyone who hears about it can himself become ill, experiencing the full range of purported symptoms. This is known as 'sociogenic illness', and it is potentially the most infectious category of illness in existence. This is because it "infects" through information, making mass media often the single greatest transmission vector. Most worryingly, the current medical opinion is that there is no particular predisposition to mass sociogenic illness and it is a behavioral condition that anyone can show in the right circumstances.8

A 2006 study testing individual sensitivity to GSM cellphone signals found no evidence that people with self-reported sensitivity to mobile phone signals are able to detect such signals or that they react to them with increased symptom severity. As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, this condition was most likely sociogenic illness.9

A 2012 study testing whether media coverage of people sensitive to WiFi signal contributed to reports of WiFi sensitivity concluded that media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it.10

A case study about mass illness attributed to toxic exposure at a high school had features of mass psychogenic illness. Notably, widespread subjective symptoms thought to be associated with environmental exposure to a toxic substance persisted in the absence of objective evidence of an environmental cause.11

In other words, sociogenic and psychogenic illness exist, there is no particular predisposition to mass sociogenic illness and it is a behavioral condition that anyone can show in the right circumstances.12

Can the Placebo Effect be Scientifically Tested?

All of the previous studies seem to indicate that yes, the placebo effect can be scientifically tested, but as a final confirmation, a study conducted on subjects with Alzheimer's disease showed that these subjects got less pain relief from pain medications. They required higher doses, possibly because they had forgotten that they were getting the drugs, or they forgot that the pain medicines had worked for them before.13

In other words, Alzheimer's disease seems to allow the comparison of placebo effect and the lack thereof. Because Alzheimer's disease patients do not remember taking their medication, they receive far less benefit from it due to the lost contributions from the placebo effect.

A Suggestion of Methods

Now that we've scientifically proven that the placebo effect works, it is powerful, and it by all means should work for you, even if you know you are or may be taking a placebo, we may devise some methods.

You will likely need an external source of entropy, and should most likely not use a placebo in place of actual necessary treatment. This would mean that you will want a medication that does not cure any particular disease, though maybe alleviating symptoms is a better bet. I assume that this is why the studies above tend to stick with pain relief for evaluating placebos. Pain relief is easy to judge and quantify on a personal level, and the lack thereof does not threaten anyone's life. If you are injured and in pain, there is your test.

If you are not injured, however, and have no desire to be,14 you may want to try medication that causes noticeable benefit rather than treatment. For example, caffeine. Find two coffees, one caffeinated, one decaffeinated, that you can't tell tell apart with taste alone. Ideally, add something with a strong taste masking ability to each to help prevent differentiation. Have a friend divide up the two coffees into numbered plastic bags, one bag for each day of the experiment, without you knowing which bags are which. Also, it is important to prevent bias that you not be able to connect different days of the experiment, so no evens and odds. Your friend's numbering system should be sufficiently random that you can't figure out which bags are which. When you are ready, begin the experiment, using a bag of your choice for each day of the experiment. Chart, on an hourly basis, the amount of "buzz" you experience from that coffee number, and after maybe a month try to take a guess using the chart at which bag numbers were caffeinated and which were decaffeinated. Then, ask for your friend's table of which were which, and evaluate.

This was just a suggestion, but this and similar study designs should by all means allow you to test the placebo effect on yourself. Feel free to experiment, that's how science progresses.

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