A Spiritual Placebo
By Don Ruhl
What is the placebo effect? Let us assume some researchers want to discover whether caffeine increases intelligence. They gather a group of fifty people from all walks of life and to them they administer caffeine. They also assemble a control group of fifty people from all walks of life and give them a sugar pill, but the people in this group believe they have received caffeine.
When the researchers do their testing and the control group has a marked increase in intelligence like the group that took the caffeine, then the researchers begin to doubt whether caffeine truly increases intelligence, but only that people expected it to increase and so they improved.
This is known as the placebo effect or the power of suggestion. If the group receiving the caffeine did increase their intelligence and the group receiving the sugar pill or placebo did not increase their intelligence, then the increase could not be attributed to the person’s expectations, but to the caffeine.
Psychology As a Spiritual Placebo
Some people believe psychological counseling (as opposed to counsel from the Bible) has helped them. Many have testified to me that it did not help, claiming to have recovered later without it. Others have said that some other source helped. If a form of medicine helped only a few people and others claimed no help, its efficacy would be in doubt, and its value as a medicine would be questioned. Its scientific qualities would also be questioned. Those who did improve would be considered the benefactors of the healing of time, natural processes, or the placebo effect.
Some who are seemingly helped by modern psychology are helped because they expect to be helped. Hence, the placebo effect.
Martin Gross says that, “Dr. Arthur Shapiro believes that it is the placebo effect.” Gross goes on to quote Shapiro,
“Most therapists are convinced that it is their method and insight that produces patient improvement, but this is not true,” Dr. Shapiro pointed out when interviewed. “Any improvement is probably the result of the placebo effect. In fact, the placebo was the underlying therapeutic factor in medicine until Pasteur laid the basis for effective medication. Modern psychotherapy claims to be a scientific treatment, but there is no evidence from controlled studies to support this. More likely, psychotherapy is still in its pre-Pasteur stage. It is a treatment whose major effect is that of the placebo.”
“The placebo effect operates in various ways in psychotherapy: in the enthusiasm of the therapist, in his interest in and liking of the patient, in advice giving, in reinforcing the patient’s desire to get well,” Dr. Shapiro continued. “Most psychological explanations are nonsense, but it is another way to get at the placebo effect. If the patient is told about his unconscious Oedipus complex, the understanding can act as a placebo even if the theory is not true, which it isn’t.
“In ancient times, the therapist would go into a bizarre dance in order to communicate with evil forces bedeviling his patient. He would speak in incantations, then spit out the bloody tissue of an animal. He would ask the spirits for relief for the patient, whose face would brighten with hope. Modern psychotherapy has magical trappings which are more appealing to the contemporary mind, but the underlying mechanism of both procedures is the same—mobilizing the power of the placebo.” (Martin Gross, The Psychological Society, New York: Random House, 1978, pp. 33, 34).
Thomas Kiernan, the author of Shrinks, Etc., has said,
In the end, psychotherapy is a state of mind. If you are convinced it can help you, the likelihood is that it will; if you are convinced of the opposite, the likelihood is that it won’t (quoted in: PsychoHeresy, by Martin and Deidre Bobgan, Santa Barbara, California: EastGate Publishers, second printing, November 1987, p. 190).
Therefore the psychology of man is a form of deception. Consider this blatant confession of a psychotherapist,
Humanitarian fervor aside, it’s the therapist’s job to take power over the patient, push ahead with solving the problem, then convince the patient he or she is better, even if it means being devious: “He can develop ploys beyond the wildest dreams of a used car salesman. One…is to make patients work or “suffer” to get into therapy and so increase their belief value…
When a client improved, I couldn’t honestly credit the change to insight, catharsis, actualizing potentials, trying out new behavior or any other well-known therapeutic concept…
The reader may feel that I’ve ignored the most important question of all—ethics. The social influence approach will seem outrageously manipulative to some people…I simply want to assert here that the social influence perspective and the kinds of tactics I’ve suggested are justified both by empirical studies in social psychology and by considerable clinical evidence. (John Gillis, “The Therapist As Manipulator” Psychology Today, December, 1974, pp. 91–95).
The psychotherapists may believe that the end justifies the means, and that pragmatism is the answer, but Christians and the church must be concerned with whether teachings and practices are scriptural. The end does not justify the means.
The danger of deception, or of the placebo effect, is that it may not work when you really need it. In Isaiah 30.1–5 God spoke against Israel for this very thing. They trusted in Egypt because sometimes Egypt was a help, but when Israel really needed help, Egypt would not be there,
“Woe to the rebellious children,” says the LORD,
“Who take counsel, but not of Me,
And who devise plans, but not of My Spirit,
That they may add sin to sin;
Who walk to go down to Egypt,
And have not asked My advice,
To strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh,
And to trust in the shadow of Egypt!
Therefore the strength of Pharaoh
Shall be your shame,
And trust in the shadow of Egypt
Shall be your humiliation.
For his princes were at Zoan,
And his ambassadors came to Hanes.
They were all ashamed of a people who could not benefit them,
Or be help or benefit,
But a shame and also a reproach.”
Isaiah 31.1–3 gives a similar and powerful warning, which the church would do well to apply today to the matter of where we receive help for solving the daily problems of living,
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
And rely on horses,
Who trust in chariots because they are many,
And in horsemen because they are very strong,
But who do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
Nor seek the LORD!
Yet He also is wise and will bring disaster,
And will not call back His words,
But will arise against the house of evildoers,
And against the help of those who work iniquity.
Now the Egyptians are men, and not God;
And their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the LORD stretches out His hand,
Both he who helps will fall,
And he who is helped will fall down;
They all will perish together.
As the Bobgans have written,
Although placebos have demonstrated their suggestive power in relieving symptoms in both emotional and physical disorders, they have not had the same effect in extreme mental-emotional disorders. According to the research, placebos are of no significant value in extreme cases. This should not surprise us as those who have extreme disorders do not have the presence of mind to accept the power of suggestion that accompanies the fake pill and those who are chronically anxious may not be open to the suggestion of hope. After all, the placebo effect is the power of a milk-sugar pill; it is the power of suggestion, accompanied by faith in the system or in the doctor administering the fake medicine (Martin and Deidre Bobgan, The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1979, pp. 28, 29).
The problem with the placebo nature of psychology is that it builds trust in a vain philosophy, and the Scriptures warn us against such, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2.8). Instead we are to trust Christ for wholeness in life, as Paul goes on to write, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (Col 2.9, 10).
Psychology tries to fulfill the promise of wholeness or completeness, but it is not able to do it, because it in itself is incomplete, having been based on the teachings of men and the world, and only Jesus Christ is complete, therefore, He can make us complete. As Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who is critical of psychotherapy, has written,
Revealingly, Luther entitled his “Ninety-five Theses” Disputation of the Power and Efficacy of Indulgence. Ritualized indulgences, Luther insisted, have no real spiritual power, beyond that which the penitent imputes to them. Ritualized psychiatric interventions, I maintain, have no real therapeutic power, beyond that which the patient imputes to them. Luther attacked the sale of indulgences as a degraded and degrading falsification of the true cure of souls. I attack the sale of prescriptions and other fakeries of contemporary psychotherapy as degraded and degrading falsifications of the true cure of souls (Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Psychotherapy, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988, pp. 34, 35).
Another problem with man’s psychology is that it opens up a person to gullibility. Most people have an uncritical confidence in a psychologist, psychotherapist, counselor, and others of like profession, because people believe that those in the counseling professions are “qualified” and “trained” in a “science.” However, in an earlier article we showed the fallacy of this type of thinking (The Bible Meditator, October 1995, Vol. 6, No. 10).
The Scriptures teach that we are to be discerning, that we are to “test all things” (1Th 5.21), or as John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1Jo 4.1). Let us remember that false teachers will come in disguise and it is up to us to perceive the truth about them (Matt 7.15; 2Co 11.13–15).
The thing that causes the placebo effect can be achieved without psychology. Jerome Frank, a therapist of the John Hopkins Medical School, says,
With many patients the placebo may be as effective as psychotherapy because the placebo condition contains the necessary and possibly the sufficient ingredient for much of the beneficial effect of all forms of psychotherapy. This is a helping person who listens to the patient’s complaints and offers a procedure to relieve them, thereby inspiring the patient’s hopes and combating demoralization.
Garth Wood comments on the above:
In other words, all the inferiority complexes, the dream interpretations, the oedipal factors, the collective unconscious, the free associations, are nothing but red herrings. The vital ingredient is after all merely a caring listener who raises hopes and fights demoralization. The concerned and forceful friend of Moral Therapy, for instance. But if this is all that is needed, what then of professional training in the intricacies of psychotherapy, what of the huge fees, what of the third-party medical insurance reimbursements, of the pretense and the rhetoric, of all the shams and the charlatans, the sound and the fury signifying nothing? If this is all the great “science” of psychotherapy is, then let us sweep it away now and bother ourselves with it no more (Garth Wood, The Myth of Neurosis, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, U. S. edition, 1986, pp. 290, 291).
The Bobgans add,
If one combines the interpersonal qualities of the therapists, the external factors involved in spontaneous remission, and the placebo effect, one may account for much of what may be working to bring about any success in psychotherapy. In other words, the particular psychological approach is not what leads to change, nor the theories, training, or techniques. It is the interpersonal environment provided by the counselor, plus spontaneous remission factors, plus the placebo effect. And all of these, of course, pale in comparison to the individual’s desire to change and his willingness to take the responsibility to do so (Bobgans, PsychoHeresy, Op. cit., pp. 192, 193).
Does this mean that we can still use psychotherapy since it sometimes produces good? Has Mormonism ever achieved good? Does Mormonism contain some truth? We could answer yes to the last two questions, but who wants to promote Mormonism and who wants to send those seeking for answers to doctrinal questions to the Mormons?
We are to fight against systems that are in competition with God’s way (1Co 1.18–2.16; Psa 106.34–36). The point from the above quotations is that psychotherapy creates faith, whether in the counselor, the method of psychology, or something else, but it is faith in faith, and the Scriptures teach us to have faith in God through Jesus Christ. Consider the following thought from the Bobgans,
If faith has that much power in itself, regardless of the object of the faith, think of how powerful faith is if it is truly directed towards God, and if the person exercising the faith is placing his faith in the God of the universe rather than in a mere man, and if he is placing his faith in the very Word of God rather than in a theory or system devised by man (Bobgans, The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way, Op. cit., pp. 152, 153).
Since psychology is a placebo, its results are superficial and temporary because it is based on fallible and rebellious man, giving glory to man rather than to God. We cannot follow our own understanding (Pro 3.5, 6); for we do not know the way that we should take in life (Jer 10.23). Therefore, we should reject whatever is falsely called knowledge or science (1Ti 6.20, 21); and run to the Lord and buy what we need for the soul rather than wasting our money on that which does not work (Isa 55.1–3).
Whoever trusts in the psychology of man is trusting in a proverb of ashes.