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Scientific studies confirm that a placebo (a dummy medication or procedure) can genuinely benefit a person’s health. But its sinister cousin, the “nocebo effect,” creates expectations of harm, which can lead to seriously negative health consequences.

A patient’s expectations of a treatment clearly influence the way it works. The authors of a 2012 German study note that vulnerable, ill, or injured patients are highly receptive to negative suggestion. A participant in one drug trial developed dangerously low blood pressure by “overdosing” on what he thought was an antidepressant—only when he learned that it was an inert substance did his blood pressure return to normal. (Conversely, the power of positive suggestion may explain some of the success of complementary therapies—from herbal remedies to homeopathy). The more strongly a patient believes in the treatment, the more likely it is to be effective. Here are some ways you can put this knowledge to…

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