If you’ve ever pushed the crosswalk button at a stoplight and waited several minutes for the light to change you’ve most likely been manipulated by the placebo effect. Most cross walk buttons in the united states aren’t connected to the stoplights anymore. The lights are set up on timers and sensors and the cross walk button is simply there to make you feel like you’re doing something. An ABC News report in 2014 found 90% of the crosswalk buttons in New York don’t work and in Dallas, nearly all of the 200 crosswalk buttons have no impact on traffic signals.
Why would dummy crosswalk buttons be installed or not removed as traffic timing technology improved? They are there to make us feel like we are in control. The same goes for dummy thermostats installed in large office buildings and the “close doors” button on an elevator. How many times have you pushed that close door button before the doors actually close? 5 times? 8?
Placebos are all around us to trigger certain behavior. Many times we aren’t even aware of the control they have over us. David McRaney wrote a whole book about the neurobiological effects of placebos on the brain. Its called, “You are less Dumb” and its a great read, full of revelations about how “not smart” we are.
Its not our fault of course. Our brains are the most fabulous story tellers and will construct a narrative out of whatever facts are available. Placebos in life can be a pill, a device or a good story. “They are made of words and rituals, symbols, and meanings, and all these elements are active in shaping the patient’s brain.” (from the journal: Neuropsychopharmacology). Those mental connections cause actual physical changes in the body which is why placebos in medicine often work. Paul Zak is a brain researcher who says there are several reasons why the brain loves a good story. “…as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values”. In society, we value control over our environment which is why cross walk buttons and fake thermostats still exist.
A story, if compelling to our brain will result in something called, transportation. “We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions.” When others tell us stories they can impact our behavior. For example: This button will help you cross the street faster and you are in control of it. So if placebos can be used to manipulate the behavior of others, can we use them to manipulate ourselves in a positive way? The answer is yes, and successful people do it all the time.
I had a conversation with a friend yesterday. A successful person who has had several recent downturns in her life. She went through a painful divorce, battled back an addiction and has experienced the loss of a prestigious job. This woman is still one of the most zen individuals I know. Her social media feed is filled with expressions of gratitude and her attitude is always looking toward the positive. I know she has experienced significant pain but she refuses to see her recent misfortune as a lifelong pattern. Her self perception is that she is mostly successful and mostly happy. She transmits that to others. The placebo is working in that she is emerging from a period of her life that might’ve crushed other people. She has started her own business and the last time we talked, she was taking sailing lessons and generally enjoying life. People who can tell themselves a story of success in their darkest moments use the power of the placebo effect on themselves. The fact that I described her in the second sentence of this paragraph as a “successful” person says the placebo story worked on me too. I’ve always seen her as successful.
It would be too easy to wrap up this article by saying, “See! Just think positively and your life will be great”. Its more than positive thinking that keeps us afloat when we face big challenges in life. Its the stories we tell ourselves about why things happen the way they do and how much our brain is convinced. You can call it self delusion but research has proven that thoughts have actual, physical impact on our brains in the construction of neural connections. Luckily, our brain is programmed to build positive narratives out of the most challenging situations. This has kept us alive. Don’t think of placebos as tricks others play on you. Think of them as tools you can harness to build the reality you want and the success you deserve.