How ineffective treatments can appear to work

Reasons why bogus treatments seem to get results

13th December 2004

There is always a lot of anecdotal and testimonial evidence for alternative remedies. It can be difficult to refute anecdotes as they are not testable and are subjective in nature.

However, there are many reasons why bogus treatments can appear to work, and some of those reasons are given here:

  1. Incorrect diagnosis

    A condition may have been diagnosed by a qualified doctor, an alternative practitioner, or self-diagnosed. Whichever way it was diagnosed, there's a chance that it could be wrong: the likelihood of a misdiagnosis increasing the less qualified the person doing the diagnosis is.

    Wrongly assigning a condition to symptoms could give the illusion of an unlikely or even a "miracle" cure having taken place, whereas a correct diagnosis would have revealed a condition that would have cleared up of its own accord.

  2. Conditioning

    We learn from being children that when you're poorly, you take some medicine and the medicine makes you better. This conditioning is thought to trigger our own body's natural responses to being medicated (so long as a response exists) even if the treatment is bogus. Pain relief, via activating the opioid system in the brain, is a prime example of this effect.

  3. Self limiting diseases

    Self-limiting diseases have a finite lifetime and will clear up naturally as the body fights off the infection.

    A remedy taken during the course of the illness could be seen as having cured the patient of the condition, especially if taken whilst the symptoms are at their worst.

  4. The rhythmic nature of chronic conditions

    Many chronic (permanent) conditions have "flare ups" where the symptoms, often periodically, get worse before getting better again. The sufferer will seek treatment when the flare up is at its worst. The condition will then regress back to its average level which again can lead to the illusion that an ineffective treatment has made a difference.

  5. Complementary treatments

    When taking prescribed medication many people also take alternative remedies and when they get better they may ascribe their cure to the alternative treatment and overlook the fact that it was the real treatment which brought about the cure.

  6. Reinterpretation of symptoms

    With a strong belief in alternative remedies, a person who has invested their emotion, time and money on an alternative treatment will be looking for it to work.

    Even when no improvement occurs in their condition they will convince themselves that it has had a positive effect, even if it's just to claim that it prevented them from getting worse.

  7. Psychosomatic illness (somatization)

    Somatizers are people who present with or claim to have physical symptoms which are similar to organic disease, but which are a result of psychological conflicts, stress, anxieties, etc. These people, who are convinced they are ill, refuse to accept any psychological explanation for their symptoms. This means that conventional medicine can do little for them, and they end up with the opinion that conventional medicine is uncaring and unhelpful.

    They are often after support, sympathy, reassurance, and a sense of recognition; this is something that alternative practitioners cater for. Many are willing to diagnose and confirm whatever the patient thinks they have and offer their treatment accordingly.

    This can lead to a vicious cycle where the patient becomes stuck playing "the sick role", with periodic bouts of illness, and the alternative practitioner being convinced that their particular treatment works because their patient is telling them so. Meanwhile, the root cause of the patient's problems never gets addressed.

    Ironically, these are the very people who sing the praises of alternative medicine often with anecdotes of wonderful results due to their treatment.