The placebo effect isn't something I think about very often and when I do it is usually in the context of dismissing it as a trick of the mind or something like that. Maybe the placebo effect is just someone getting better on their own where it would have happened anyway, with no medical intervention at all.
I suspect a lot of us think this way.
But there are people out there wondering why it's happening. Why does the body sometimes heal itself? Can we understand it? What mechanisms are at work? If it is a trick of the mind, why does it seem to happen so consistently?
Here is an article about these individuals:
For a long time, nearly 250 years, we've known about the placebo effect, but we have done very little to study it.
That is changing now.
Experiments are focused on understanding how the placebo effect works, in the hopes of understanding it and putting it to work for the betterment of man kind.
It's a fasciating article and you should read the whole thing.
There are two parts of this article that interesting as leadership examples, and I want to take a few minutes to talk about those.
The origin of our understanding of the Pacebo effect come from 18th century France and involves a famous American.
Benjamin Franklin was part of a panel that was tasked with analyzing the work of the mesermist Charles d’Eslon. Mesmerists (disciples of Anton Mesmer) claimed to heal people of chronic illnesses and pain using a force called Animal Magnetism.
The panel developed experiments where the patients cannot see d'Eslon, thereby separating the effects of the mesmerist from what the patient might be supplying themselves. In doing so, the panel creates the first blind medical experiments and isolated the placebo effect.
The results of the experiment were quite clear: something besides animal magnetism, something the patient's themselves are supplying, is producing the effects of the treatment.
Having been told that imagination produces the effects attributed to his work as a mesmerist, d'Eslon responds:
the imagination thus directed to the relief of suffering humanity would be a most valuable means in the hands of the medical profession.
I find d'Eslon's reaction remarkable as an example of leadership.
I have seen people go to great lengths defending things not very integral to their livelihood and profession. How many times have you seen people defend turf for the sake of defending turf and maintaining the status quo?
D'Eslon, whose career is on the line, responds very differently.
Imagine being told you're a fraud and instead of reacting with hostility, you analyze the data and retrieve the key insight. Instead of defensiveness, instead of anger you simnply extract that conclusion your detractors seemed to have overlooked.
I've seen some people who are cool under pressure, but I've never seen anything like that. It should probably go in the record books under, Most Reasonable, Self-Aware Reaction Too Bad News, Ever.
I'm not sure what happened to d'Eslon after that. But I'd curious to know what such a man did with the rest of his life.
Imagine seeing your work discredited in public and responding with a valuable insight.
He saw the value in the placebo effect and applying our imaginations to relieve suffering.
The second thing that I think we should think about as leaders:
Some pretty brave people applying imagination to something that had been dismissed by medical science for nearly 250 years. As the article mentions, this isn't an easy journey for them. To take a topic that has been dismissed for that long and try to get people to pay attention to it is a pretty amazing feat. There are a lot of detractors, but they think it is important so they are dong it anyway.
We should take a lesson from the strength of people when confronted with challenge - Do we persevere when people question us? Or do we press on?
Those studying the placebo effect are pressing on because they believe there is something valuable and interesting, that medical science can finally come to grips with.
I'm glad that now there are those in the medical profession paying attention to how the placebo effect might be used differently and I'm glad we have the tools so that we can begin to understand it. New tools (DNA sequencing and MRIs are mentioned specifically) give these researchers the ability to peer inside us and look deeper than we ever could before.
But while the technical frontier that has opened, the frontier of human complacency, tradition, and established opinion must still be confronted and there is no new tool for that. There is only courage and perseverance, just as there always has been.
These are both great examples of human beings facing the challenge of change - one story of someone faced with a challenge/change and reacting with equanimity and grace, and one story of those taking on the establishment because of what they believe is the right thing to do.
Both of these are worth thinking about as examples of how to face challenges and show leadership during times of change.