I find it fascinating that lab studies for pharmaceutical companies have to account for the placebo effect in their analyses. How can it be that a sugar pill can ellicit similar postive results to the actual drug being tested? It seems that the power of the human mind is responsible. But is that so surprising?
The human mind is capable of things from the E=mc(squared) equation to the Mona Liza. I was wondering if it was possible to mentally turn on the placebo effect. Would that be desireable? It would seem so to me, at least at first glance. If I could take a sugar pill and have it act like a pain killing drug (or perhaps and antibiotic), it would seem I could a) save myself a trip to the doctor, b) save money on the cost of the drug, and c) avoid side effects. There are a lot of books written about topics such as psychic healing and the like, and I view the placebo effect as one tool in the toolkit to keep oneself healthy.
But let’s take a deeper look at what’s going on. In effect, if I could “sign on” to the placebo effect, I am engaging in self-deception on the deepest levels. Doesn’t that fly in the face of some well-known adages such as, to thine own self be true, and the truth shall set you free? Perhaps, but I would argue that self-deception is a necessary thing for the modern psyche. And by modern, I mean post-industrial. It’s the post-industrial era that find people with large amounts (relatively) of free time. And with free time comes worry and stress and the search for meaning.
Self-deception: what good is it?
We’ve already described how it could benefit from the placebo effect. But, also, it could help ease a guilty conscious. We (as a society) do this all the time. How many people in prison believe they are truly innocent? I think many do. They’ve guided their thinking so that a veil can be raised to hide or alter sections of memory. “It wasn’t me!” is a cry heard by many parents when asking who broke the vase in the living room. Now, I think this kind of self-deception is harmful, actually. It’s much better for the human psyche to understand itself. It’s difficult enough (from my perspective) to glean truth out of this blurry, fuzzy thing we call reality, so why purposefully cloud any of it? That just makes the task of uncovering the truth more difficult.
However, … and Here’s the Rub
As Jung and Freud described, the human psyche is composed broadly in 3 sections: the id, the ego, and the superego. “We” have no control over the id. It’s the instinctual part of our psyches, our desires and passions that come from deep down. The ego tries to please the desires of the id, but it also has to mediate between the desires of the id and the guilty recriminations of the superego (the superego houses the “conscience”). But what if the ego is siding too much with the id?
What if, for example, a man’s ego reasons that because sex feels so good, the more of it the better. Well, the conscience-laden superego tries to intervene, pointing out the long-term benefits of being faithful. And if the superego wants to have more control over urges (such as sexual), then perhaps the superego in the form of an inner voice convince the ego that sex is better if it is delayed, that anticipation can be a very good thing indeed (to which the id says BS).
But if this self-deception, if birthed in the superego, can be effective at controlling the id. And as Jung pointed out, trying to control the id is like a horse rider trying to maintain control of his steed with his reins but it’s a powerful horse with a mind of its own and control can often be difficult and ultimately ineffective. I imagine a slick marketing campaign: superegos rise up, stonewall the id with ultimate truths (and don’t look behind the curtain!).
Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist (although I play one on TV).