Word I Learned: Nocebo

I’m at Web of Change, so updates are likely to be pretty intermittent this week. On my way up–I took the train for the first time from Victoria to Nanaimo–I read the latest issue of Wired magazine. In it, there’s a really fascinating article about the placebo effect, and how, remarkably, it’s increasing:

Why are inert pills suddenly overwhelming promising new drugs and established medicines alike? The reasons are only just beginning to be understood. A network of independent researchers is doggedly uncovering the inner workings—and potential therapeutic applications—of the placebo effect. At the same time, drugmakers are realizing they need to fully understand the mechanisms behind it so they can design trials that differentiate more clearly between the beneficial effects of their products and the body’s innate ability to heal itself. A special task force of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health is seeking to stem the crisis by quietly undertaking one of the most ambitious data-sharing efforts in the history of the drug industry. After decades in the jungles of fringe science, the placebo effect has become the elephant in the boardroom.

The article uses a term I hadn’t heard before: nocebo. Here’s an explanation:

Like any other internal network, the placebo response has limits. It can ease the discomfort of chemotherapy, but it won’t stop the growth of tumors. It also works in reverse to produce the placebo’s evil twin, the nocebo effect. For example, men taking a commonly prescribed prostate drug who were informed that the medication may cause sexual dysfunction were twice as likely to become impotent.

Handy term, eh?


  1. Interesting word — somewhat evocative of Orwell’s “newspeak” good/ungood. It’s been around for a while … according to the OED:

    “1961 W. P. KENNEDY in Med. World 95 203 It is somewhat surprising that little attention has been drawn to the existence of the contrary effect [to the placebo]which I may call the nocebo reaction. “

  2. This is an excellent word! Nocebo. I was just explaining “placebo” to some kids last week. I will have to find an opportunity to follow it up with this word…

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