Just watching or reading about disease and potentially-harmful substances can make suggestible people anxious enough to develop symptoms, reported researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany this week.
Calling it the “nocebo effect”, the study showed that the mere anticipation of possible injury can actually trigger pain or symptoms, which is the opposite of the “placebo effect” that kicks in when people have high expectations from something they are doing — taking medicine that are really sugar pills, going or morning walks, doing breathing exercises etc —to benefit their health.
Irrational expectations is a bit like sacrificing a goat to keep your job. Call it super superstitious or plain stupid, but there are more than a few people who think sacrificing a fattened goat will help them keep their job even if their boss and the world wants them out.
People sporting many-splendoured rings and chains to help them get things as radically different as fame and fortune to a full head of hair is an obvious indication of superstition and susceptibility, but those who consider themselves immune to irrationality also often fall prey to suggestion and the mood they happen to be in.
Like my otherwise rational-sounding colleague who mentioned that her feet has started tingling of late and asked me what the problem could be.
I asked if she’d got tested for diabetes and I was told that she had diabetes. Perhaps you need stronger or different medicines, I suggested. And she said she had stopped taking medicines because she was going for morning walks and was feeling happy and well.
I insisted on a blood test. As expected, her blood sugar levels had skyrocketed and the doctor sent her home chastened with a blister-packs of medicines that she had to take irrespective of her mood and walking schedule.
Every other day I run into people who discover yoga and abandon medicines for chronic conditions, such as hypertension (high blood-pressure).
Yoga, they are told by suspect TV gurus and yoga teachers who shun science usually because they’ve never gone to regular school, is all you need to be perfectly healthy and they believe it, largely because they want to. The result is kidney damage, heart attacks and stroke, just to name a few.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against yoga or traditional medicine. Yoga does help people, including those on medication.
But along with yoga, you also need to track your health through regular tests and biological readings that are without doubt the touchstone of your physical condition.
The need to rationally think health-affecting behaviours through is important not just because it affects how active or well you’ll be in the coming years, but also because suggestion not just affects behaviour but also cognition (how we think), which makes us
justify outcomes as miracles even when they are rooted in rationality.
Last summer, psychological scientists at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and Harvard Medical School in the US, investigated the phenomenon of suggestion, exploring the relationship between suggestion, cognition and behaviour.
They found that when you expect a specific outcome, you automatically set in motion a chain of thoughts and behaviours to produce that outcome — and wrongly attribute your success or failure to its cause.
For instance, a cricketer who thinks kissing a gold pendant hanging around his neck will help him score high may actually do better than he would have otherwise because the action will make him more confident about his own abilities, have less anxiety and attempt to hit tougher deliveries than someone who has no lucky charm.
The dead goat’s spirit didn’t save former railways minister Pawan Kumar Bansal from getting sacked, but perhaps it helped him survive the nerve-racking days he spent waiting for his boss to make up his mind. Which is a pity, because a few anti-anxiety pills would have done the trick without the bloodshed.