The placebo effect is that spooky phenomenon that can cure people simply by convincing them they’re getting real medicine (whereas they in fact are just taking a sugar pill). Although it’s been reported in all sorts of areas of medicine, it’s particularly potent for treating things like irritable bowel syndrome, pain, and depression.
In fact, a recent analysis found that most of the effect of antidepressant medicine in people with depression was in fact due to the placebo effect (but the effect got smaller in people with more severe depression).
With that in mind, a new study showing a connection between religious beliefs and the efficacy of antidepressant medicine is really interesting. What they did was to interview people who had just been enrolled in clinical trials of antidepressants, as well as some who had been admitted to hospital (they’re a bit vague on the details here). On average, they had moderate-to-severe depression.
They measured religion using the Religious Well Being scale. This asks questions about strength of belief in a personal god, like ‘‘I believe that God is concerned about my problems.’’
What they found was that, after 8 weeks, those patients who scored high on the scale were more likely to respond to the medication (i.e. have a large improvement in their depression).
Now, there are a lot of niggles with this study that mean it’s a long way from definitive. There weren’t many patients (136 at the end), and half the patients who started didn’t finish. That always raises a red flag because you have to suspect that the patients who dropped out did so for a reason. For example, perhaps religious patients who remained depressed dropped out of the study.
What’s more the lead author, Patrica Murphy, states that the effect was “tied specifically to the belief that a Supreme Being cared.” But that isn’t actually something you can conclude from the study – since they didn’t measure other aspects of religion.
And, finally, the RWB scale is rather leading. It assumes that you believe in a God, and then seeks to find out what kind of God that is. It doesn’t distinguish between atheists and believers who believe in a personal god that just doesn’t care about them (i.e. low self-esteem individuals).
Despite all this, it’s a fascinating result that chimes with other research into religion and the placebo effect. We know already that the placebo effect is more powerful if the patient thinks that someone cares about them. And we know that you can engage the placebo effect in Catholics simply by getting them to look at a picture of the Virgin Mary.
But most intriguing is the evidence that people who believe their fate is in the hands of God are more likely to ask for ‘heroic’ treatment to try to snatch them from the jaws of death.
Could it be that fatalistic religious people, who think that a personal god is watching over them and looking after them, are also more convinced that medicine will work? That certainly would enhance the placebo effect.
PS. Strangely enough the authors, from the Department of Religion, Health and Human Value at Rush University Medical Center, never once mention the placebo effect as a possible explanation for their findings!
Murphy, P., & Fitchett, G. (2009). Belief in a concerned god predicts response to treatment for adults with clinical depression Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65 (9), 1000-1008 DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20598