Placebos and Managing Reality - Convincer Strategies Part 3

Philip Callaghan

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In the previous two parts of this article, I described the elements that make something convincing. It's time to take that a lot further

A More Convincing Placebo
A placebo is defined as “a medicine or preparation which has no inherent pertinent pharmacologic activity but which is effective only by virtue of the factor of suggestion attendant upon its administration. " (1)

Placebos have been in use for a long time. Every new medicine must be tested against a placebo, so that the effect of the medicine can be separated from the effect of receiving a treatment.

The idea is that even if a group is receiving no pharmaceutical agent, being convinced that they are receiving treatment can cause many to start getting better.

Because this process relies on convincers, and the subjects in the clinical trial know that some of the medicine is placebo, curious things can happen.

If a person receives the real medication, yet is convinced that they were given a placebo, this can diminish the effect of the real treatment! This is often referred to as the ‘nocebo effect’.

The only convincer the test group receive is the assurance of a doctor that 50% of them are getting a real medicine. And in some cases, a lack of side effects can reveal who is getting

the placebo.

The question arose - what would happen if the subject got additional information suggesting that they were getting a real medicine? In short, what if the placebo was more convincing?

The result was the ‘active placebo’ - a substance that did not have any effect on the medical issue, but had another, noticeable physiological effect.

Kirsch and Sapirstein (2) created a storm when they published results which suggested that several popular anti-depressant medicines were acting as active placebos and several other studies have further supported this (3).

Placebo surgery (4) can also be shown to have a positive effect. So how far is it possible to go in creating healing through managing convincers?

Managing Reality

There are several professions whose main process relies on the careful management of perceived reality, through the careful use, or bypassing of, our normal convincers.

Ask a stage magician what makes their effects possible and you will often hear the phrase “suspension of disbelief”.

A hypnotist may talk about “bypassing the critical factor”.

A good storyteller might talk about “creating a compelling reality”.

In each case, they’re talking about essentially the same thing - creating a new reality without engaging our processes of evaluation - our convincers.

When Orson Welles made his famous radio broadcast of HG Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ it created mass panic.

The broadcast was designed to seem like a series of news bulletins breaking into a normal radio programme. The fake bulletins were delivered in a similar tone, pacing and phrasing to real ‘news flashes’. The effect was so convincing that many listeners really believed that an invasion from Mars was under way!

Welles relied on his listeners’ previous experience (news bulletins sound like that…) to manage their perceptions (…therefore this is a real news broadcast…) and lead them to false conclusions (…therefore the Martians are invading).

Many of the distinctions I made earlier in this article worked together to convince those listeners.

  • The radio news was a ‘qualified source’ of trustworthy information.

  • The fake newscaster’s assertions began in a plausible way and gradually became more fantastic.

  • The newscaster qualifies as an ‘authority’.

  • Each fake news bulletin was consistent with the previous ones.

  • The material was delivered to maximise its emotional impact on the listener.

  • The fake newscaster leveraged the submodalities of the ‘hear’ Convincer Channel (urgent tone and pacing)

With all of those elements stacked together, the panic that ensued as a result is hardly surprising. Welles created a compelling reality and the public responded to that reality.

Urban myths (5) and ‘friend-of-a-friend’ stories also use many of the elements I’ve described in convincing people that their claims are true.

  • Delivered by a qualified and trusted source (a friend)

  • Stories are plausible. Even if they may be unlikely, they could happen

  • Significant examples. Most have a strong emotional impact, based on one or more of the four F’s, e. g. glass shards found in a certain brand of peanut butter etc.

  • Authority. Many cite an ‘expert source’ like a research study, newspaper or leaked government document as a means of adding authority to claims.

  • Consistent. You’ll probably hear the same ones over and over again as they spread like wildfire.

The strong emotional impact is also vital to the spread of information, as we’re hard-wired to share details of potential dangers etc.

Viral marketing uses these same points of leverage to cause the rapid spread of information about products or services. And such publicity is often free.

And when ideas become widespread, they appeal to those who have a Convincer Mode that needs a large number of examples or evaluates over a long period of time.

Or you could just shortcut their process by packaging assertions like ”Everyone is doing X” or ”10,000 people can’t be wrong” in a plausible new reality.


While the general public are now rightly skeptical about claims that begin with “research has shown…” or those that involve statistics, it’s vital to be aware of your personal convincer channel and mode - and these common ways of bypassing them.

This article can’t possibly describe the entire field of persuasion and influence. I’ve only scratched the surface and hopefully provided some food for thought. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is incredibly useful information that everyone should be aware of. Pass it on!

©2007 Philip Callaghan


1. Leslie, A. , “Ethics and Practice of Placebo Therapy", American Journal of Medicine, Vol.16, No.6, 854-862 (1954)

2. Kirsch, I. , Sapirstein, G. , “Listening to Prozac but Hearing Placebo; A Meta-Analysis of Antidepressant Medication”, Prevention & Treatment, Vol.1, Article 0002a (1998)

3. Moncrieff J. , Wessely S. , Hardy R. , “Active placebos versus antidepressants for depression”, The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 1. Art. No. : CD003012. pub2 (2004)

4. Study finds common knee surgery no better than placebo

5. http://hoaxbusters. shtml

About The Author:

Philip Callaghan is an NLP Trainer and Coach who has been working full time with private clients for several years. He is a Licensed Master Practitioner and Trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and a member of the International Association of Coaches.

Visit Phil's website for further articles.

Learn NLP with Phil at


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