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Plan the perfect murder with the nocebo effect

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Yes, you can kill someone using strategic mind control. It's called the nocebo effect.

In the 1970s, a man was told that he had advanced liver cancer and had only a few months to live. He died within a few months. An autopsy showed that he had a tumor much too small to be the cause of death. As far as they could tell, the diagnosis itself killed him.

In the 1990s doctors found a group of women four times more likely than the average woman to die of heart disease. Their one common factor was that they all believed that they were prone to heart disease.


Many people have heard of the placebo effect. Patients who believe they are taking a certain drug describe a beneficial effect from a medicine, despite the fact that they aren't actually taking it. It is so common that a false form of a medication is generally dispensed to people in drug studies, to provide a sort of ‘base' of patients with the placebo effect to measure against the patients who are actually given the drug.


The flip side of this is the ‘nocebo' effect. In latin ‘nocebo' means ‘I will harm.' The sinister name is well earned. A quick survey of nocebo effect studies provides almost a blueprint for driving someone to death or insanity. Sometimes it is as simple as telling them that they've been exposed to electromagnetic radiation. In a study, students were told that electric monitoring equipment that they put on their head would cause headaches. Two thirds of them reported headaches. Similarly, people who were told that aspirin could cause stomach pain reported stomach pain much more than those who weren't told.

Once actual treatment commences, things can get more serious. Warnings about insomnia and stress are naturally more likely to induce stress and insomnia, of course, but victims of the nocebo effect report depression, fatigue, nausea, and chronic pain. Those who were told that medical procedures would be painful reported more pain than those who were told that the procedures would be relatively painless.


For those suffering from the nocebo effect, then, every step farther into the medical establishment, with its attendant warnings and consents, is a step down. Of course the difference between feeling pain, reporting pain, and feeling comfortable enough to fully report pain, not to mention depression or anxiety, is a nebulous one. Still there are those deaths. The nocebo effect seems to suggest that it's possible to talk someone to death.

Via Time, Harvard Magazine, The Washington Post, Suite 101, and New Scientist.