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Pain. 2009 Jul;144(1-2):28-34. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2009.01.033. Epub 2009 Mar 10.

Placebo analgesia induced by social observational learning.

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Department of Neuroscience, University of Turin Medical School, National Institute of Neuroscience, Turin, Italy.


Although it has long been known that psychosocial factors play a crucial role in placebo responses, no attempt has been made to understand if social observation shapes the placebo analgesic effect. To address this question, we compared placebo analgesia induced through social observation (Group 1) with first-hand experience via a typical conditioning procedure (Group 2) and verbal suggestion alone (Group 3). In Group 1, subjects underwent painful stimuli and placebo treatment after they had observed a demonstrator (actually a simulator) showing analgesic effect when the painful stimuli were paired to a green light. In Group 2, subjects were conditioned according to previous studies, whereby a green light was associated to the surreptitious reduction of stimulus intensity, so as to make them believe that the treatment worked. In Group 3, subjects received painful stimuli and were verbally instructed to expect a benefit from a green light. Pain perception was assessed by means of a Numerical Rating Scale (NRS) ranging from 0=no pain to 10=maximum imaginable pain. Empathy trait and heart rate were also measured. We found that observing the beneficial effects in the demonstrator induced substantial placebo analgesic responses, which were positively correlated with empathy scores. Moreover, observational social learning produced placebo responses that were similar to those induced by directly experiencing the benefit through the conditioning procedure, whereas verbal suggestions alone produced significantly smaller effects. These findings show that placebo analgesia is finely tuned by social observation and suggest that different forms of learning take part in the placebo phenomenon.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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