Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Power Of Positive Thinking (aka The Placebo Effect)

Now before you go thinking that i'm going to be all negative on the subject, i'll start by saying that i think the placebo effect is highly underrated. If someone was to tell you that in a reasonable number of cases a sugar pill could be as effective in treating illnesses as an expensive medication you'd be pretty impressed. You might even ask why we don't try to treat everything with sugar pills instead of spending lots of money on pharmaceuticals. Alas the placebo per se doesn't do anything and the effect relies on the patient believing the sugar pill will improve their condition, therein lies the link to positive thinking.

I suspect that most of the cynicism about 'positive thinking' is based on the screeds of pseudo-scientific books which propose a variety of far-fetched mechanisms for how it works from auras, to spirits or even quantum mechanics. Some of these mechanisms are occasionally covered in a thin veneer of real science (yes, there is a zero point field) but invariably the mechanism cannot be scientifically proven (there is no hard evidence to indicate that people can manipulate the zero point field with their thoughts). On the other hand there are a number of scientifically proven theories which can shed some light on the benefits of thinking positively.

Psychological - This one is obvious, if you frame everything in a positive light you will be happier; threats become opportunities, something going wrong becomes a chance to do something different. It doesn't take a genius to see that if you choose to perceive things in a positive way you will feel more positively about things, it's simple tautology (circular logic). Furthermore there are a number of cognitive biases which are likely to amplify the feeling that if you think good thoughts, good things happen. The most relevant in this case is Confirmation Bias; "the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.". In other words if you believe something, you are more likely to accept evidence that agrees with your belief and ignore evidence which does not agree with your belief. So if you think positively and believe it makes your life better, you will be more inclined to notice and remember positive things that happen and dismiss any negative things that happen. Now if you want to make optimal decisions or become a being of pure reason and logic, tautology and cognitive bias are to be avoided. On the other hand if you want to be happy, thinking positively is bound to help.

Physiological - Thinking comes from the brain, the brain controls a lot of the processes in the rest of the body, so there could be a link between positive thinking and physical wellbeing. Please don't ask me to dig up the research, but there is ample evidence linking mental state with physiological effects. One example is that if you are stressed (a mental state), your brain triggers your adrenal gland to release cortisol (a physiological response). Now in some ways cortisol is great; in the short term it helps you metabolise protein, carbohydrates and fat, which is pretty useful if you are stressed because you are being chased by a tiger. On the other hand in the long term it suppresses your imune system and slows bone growth, both of which are less than ideal. I don't propose that we fully understand how mental state effects physiology. However given that your brain regulates a large number of hormones and systems, from an evolutionary standpoint there is a good chance that being happy and relaxed is better for you than being depressed and stressed.

Interpersonal - So the above covers why thinking positively can be beneficial to your mental state and physical wellbeing, but if it doesn't translate beyond you as an individual then it is borderline delusion. Fortunately there is scientific evidence which supports emotions - and hence positive thinking - being contagious between people. Let's try an experiment; the next time you are outside, smile at a random person. Nine times out of ten they will smile back, unless of course they are in a really shitty mood. While that of itself is quite impressive, what is even more impressive is that by the mere action of smiling that person will feel slightly happier. This reciprocation is caused by mirror neurons in the brain, you don't just mirror movements but emotions as well. There is no need to invoke spirits or psychics or quantum mechanics, it is simply neurobiology. Humans are social creatures and have been long before the advent of language, it makes sense that our ancestors would have had an evolutionary advantage if they could understand and influence other individuals. So if you think positively and are therefore happier, that happiness/positivity is likely to rub off on people you meet, which will result in better outcomes from those interactions.

The three paragraphs above are my best attempt at remembering and summarising the science at 3am after a few beers. The examples are limited, the explanations imperfect and they are distinctly lacking in citations. If you would like more detailed information on anything above, or suggested reading, please leave a comment.

Conclusion - Do i think that peoples positive vibes somehow propagate out through the zero point energy field and change the universe? Or that you can manifest a new Lexus by thinking positive? Hell no. On the other hand i do think that there is good scientific evidence for why people with a positive outlook on life are happier, healthier and have better relationships.

Some related Wikipedia links:
The Placebo Effect
Physiological Effects Of Cortisol
List of Cognitive Biases
Mirror Neurons


  1. So...I agree with basically everything you have said here :) I think that everything you have said here is the reason I love the idea of positive thinking. I know it's a placebo effect. But it works. In many cases anyway and isn't that the point.

    I mean I know that thinking positive alone isn't going to make me a millionaire without trying but positive thinking will make me see the silver lining in every situation. It'll soften the blow of negative situations. It'll make me take chances that I otherwise may not have taken and as a result I completely believe that I'll be in a better position, financially, mentally, physically etc than I would be if I wasn't thinking positive.

    I am not saying that I believe or even understand the science (pseudo science ;) ) described in those books I read but I like the idea that I am in control. Some people like to believe in a god that dictates their life, I like to believe that I am in the drivers seat. I believe in incarnation. I think I am the one throwing these challenges in my way, in order to learn lessons and become a whole person. I think life is a journey back to yourself.

    Somehow I turned this into a religious conversation.

  2. What i think people often misunderstand about my thoughts on the subject (religion, positive thinking and all manner of other unverifiable beliefs) is that i'm not against them per se. If something makes you happy or provides you solace and doesn't harm or interfere with others, more power to you.

    Where i do have an issue is when people present their unverifiable beliefs as the truth (either absolute or scientific), that is when other people get hurt and exploited.

    With religion it is pretty obvious; more people have died, been imprisoned, tortured and oppressed due to religious conflict over the years than just about any other cause. Sure all religions preach peace, love and harmony, but when two sets of absolute beliefs which can neither be proved or disproved meet, it is bound to result in conflict. There is nothing wrong with believing in god if it makes you feel better, but having the absolute belief that your god is the right one and everyone else is wrong is dangerous.

    With more 'new-age' beliefs i think it is a subtler hurt and exploitation. It is one thing to say that you believe positive thinking is beneficial, it is totally another to attempt to make your belief seem more credible and truthful by making unverifiable scientific-sounding claims. It makes people think that if they follow the belief they are sure to get results when there isn't repeatable evidence to support that claim. Ultimately it's a straight out lie to exploit people into buying more books or seminars. People who don't have a financial agenda tend to be much more 'take it or leave it' when telling others about their beliefs, they don't feel the need to push them as the truth. Show me someone pushing beliefs on other people as the truth and i'll show you that they are motivated by profit or power.

    The same goes for psychics (call-back to a tweet from ages ago ;-). I don't have a problem if someone wants to hand over money to a psychic to hear something that makes them feel better. The problem is if they act on what they are told and it has negative consequences, then the belief and actions of the psychic are damaging. Though in the case of psychics, there is some evidence that it is a crock. How else can you explain that no-one has claimed the $1 million Randi Foundation prize? Not only would they get a million dollars, but they would have the prestige of being the first empirically proved psychic, you can bet everyone would be beating a path to their door and throwing money at them. Sure it is an absence of proof, rather than proof of absence, but still quite compelling.

  3. Hi, I was asked to google Placebo effect by my sister. Am going thru severe depression and am under treatment, which by the way my sisters except my mom n dad find hard to digest. All my life i have been every positive person. And i am unable to do it nimore. When i dont take the pills i get angry frustrated n panic. I know it might b psychological or watevr but it helps me calm down. I cant be positive am tryin hard n my counselor suggested this try is makin me exhausted. This my sisters won understand. Do u have ni suggestions. I have been positive all my life, just being positive doesnt turn ur destiny around does it?? Help me if u can... if u have ni better idea and think takin medical help is a mistake.

  4. Hey,

    I'm certainly not an expert on any of this, the blog post above was mostly just a rant against the new-age hippie conception of 'the power of positive thinking'. In fact i was specifically saying that i think 'the power of positive thinking' was an example of the placebo effect.

    I definitely would not recommend replacing medical help with thinking positively. The standard for medical treatments is that they prove more effective than a placebo, so theoretically the correct medical treatment should be better than thinking positively.

    As for specific suggestions, i really don't know enough about your situation to suggest anything concrete. My only advice would be to keep an open mind, see what works for you and take the advice of others (family, friends, medical partitioners, random bloggers) with a grain of salt.

    I'm sorry i can't be more helpful, drop me another comment or an e-mail (the address should be on my profile), if you have any other questions.

  5. Thanks for reply....positive thoughts r very hard.. bt every1 keeps pushin about it,like it never came 2 mind, my counselor asked me to try smilin just for the heck of it... bt whn i do i start cryin.... i don remember the last time i was happy....N i was so different.. so positive, full of life, its all gone n i cant see way out, just the hope am gonna be fine.