Research is fundamental to the study of psychology. Experiments allow for innovation, discoveries, and improved mental health therapies. For research to be reliable, it must be done ethically and credibly. One of the best ways to increase credibility and generalizability is by using placebos.
Let’s dive deeper into psychology research and its main principles, including the importance of placebos.
Psychedelics have been the subject of research for decades, but there is still more that needs uncovering in order for psychedelics to find their permanent place in modern mental health treatment.
Psychedelic research as we know it today began in the 1950s. While these early phases of research were essential to developing psychedelic knowledge and advancements, there were significant flaws in many of the studies. For example, controls were not used correctly and participants’ assessments were not conducted effectively.
The mistakes of early psychedelics researchers should act as an invitation for improved methods and renewed dedication to research fundamentals.
Psychology utilizes scientific research principles just as other fields do. The scientific principles used in mental health experiments allow for proven therapies to be developed and implemented correctly.
There are a few different research fundamentals widely used within the psychology field.
Double-blind studies are a common trend within clinical trials. During this type of study, neither the researchers nor the participants are aware of the intervention given. This design means that researchers directly involved with study participants will treat every participant equally.
When studies are not blinded, there is the potential that bias could be intentionally or unintentionally shown. This significantly reduces the credibility of a study and can bring its results into question.
Studies published in credible journals typically go through the peer review process. During this phase, other researchers have the opportunity to scrutinize the research and find any flaws that may exist in its results or reasonings.
The peer review process ensures scientific journals are publishing reliable results.
Research ethics is a topic of college classes, academic texts, and discussions within the scientific field. Ethics are an essential part of research and are especially important when it comes to psychology studies. Making sure that a study is ethical can be complex, but incorporating a placebo is a good start.
Placebos are a fundamental aspect of many different research studies. Especially when it comes to psychedelic research, including a placebo can be essential to understand the actual effects examined in a study.
What Are Placebos?
A placebo is something within a study that’s presented to be effective when there is no biological reason it would produce a change in reality.
Placebos are a way for researchers to understand if their results are substantial or if participants are just expecting results and their bodies are manifesting the expected changes. If a study doesn’t incorporate placebos, it can be challenging to claim causation.
Placebos and Psychedelics
Placebos are especially important when participants have preconceived notions about what to expect within a study. This is often the case for psychedelic research.
Researchers incorporate controls into their studies. Controls allow them to gain a deeper understanding of their experiment and the factors they’re examining. Placebos are an example of a control that is fundamental to many psychedelic studies. Because of the widely accepted stigmas surrounding psychedelics, placebos help eliminate some of the participant expectations that could lead to skewed results.
It’s no secret that psychedelics are psychoactive (meaning they have an effect on the mind and elicit recognizable effects). Because it’s accepted that psychedelics are psychoactive, that’s not the question that placebo utilization seeks to solve. Instead, placebos help researchers narrow down the effects that psychedelics elicit, as well as their duration and severity.
Placebos can still provide a trip experience. Some individuals do experience psychedelic-like trips simply through the use of a placebo. One study found that placebo-induced trips were similar to those elicited by psilocybin. These non-psychedelic trips can be essential to understanding the true effects of a study.
Another study told participants they were receiving a substance similar to psychedelic mushrooms when in reality they all received a placebo. 61% of the participants reported feeling effects, with some mentioning visual hallucinations. This study brings up important points about the possibilities of contact highs.
Contact highs and placebo effects are extremely similar. Contact highs occur when an individual feels effects from a placebo simply because they’re around others they believe to be high. If you’ve ever been sober but felt slightly tipsy at a bar, you may have experienced the principle of contact highs.
Placebos allow researchers to understand psychedelics and their wide range of clinical applications. In some instances, placebos can elicit the same benefits that an intervention does. However, this is an area of controversy, as many people are divided on whether a placebo effect is good enough. Some argue that placebo effects are just as valuable as psychedelic impacts.
For those that are arguing in favor of placebo effects, any positive impact matters. If an individual has symptom relief, should it matter whether that relief is due to expectation or true psychedelic effects? The answer to the question will need an answer as therapeutic applications for psychedelics are becoming a reality.
Placebos can be an essential control within psychedelic clinical trials. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own limitations.
Because psychedelic effects are widely known, it’s nearly impossible to control study participant expectations completely. While placebos can help mitigate the impact of extreme expectations, they’re not a perfect solution. Likely, a perfect solution isn’t possible.
Expectation effects are a fact of psychedelic studies. When participants believe they are consuming psychedelics, there is a degree of expectancy that cannot be removed or balanced. While this expectancy is a reality that must be faced, placebos can provide an important level of reliability and generalizability.