top of page

2014 The Bad Science Show - Melbourne School Shows & School Incursions

The Placebo Effect

"I'm addicted to placebos. I'd give them up, but it wouldn't make any difference."

Stephen Wright

*This resource is intended for use after viewing The Bad Science Show. Students should be reminded of the portion of the show the lesson relates to.



To learn about how the placebo effect works. Students should understand how the placebo effect works and be better equiped to identify products that are, in reality, merely placebos.



The Placebo Effect occurs when a patient believes they are going to feel after a particular treatment and so, feel better. This can occur even if the treatment has no medical benefit in and of itself.

While The Placebo Effect is seen as a psychological phenomena, there is strong neurological evidence that the body releases endorphins when a patient believes a medical treatment works. These endorphins act as a natural pain relief.  

XKCD Correlation


  • Have you ever felt better or worse just by thinking about something?

  • Do you think it is ethical to give someone a placebo without their knowledge?

  • What could the consequences be of giving someone a placebo instead of genuine medicine?

  • What tip did Nicholas give to separate possible placebos from product's that actually work? (Aust L vs Aust R)




Have the students create their own marketing campaign for a health product that only works via the placebo effect in the form of a print advertisement created either digitally or by hand. (Time to bust out the coloured markers and the butcher’s paper)


Have them research similar marketing campaigns for health products online before they begin. 


Encourage them to avoid lying outright about their product but instead be misleading in their claims


This could include:


Applying The Halo Effect

Connect the product to a respectable product or practice

E.g. Product X will help you lose weight when combined with healthy diet and exercise


Make Up Pseudo Scientific Terminology

Make up a believable world to describe how the product works.

E.g. Product X will increase the level of wholistic-untoxification.


Using Vague Wording

E.g. Science can’t explain why Product X is so effective. 


What type of product is it?

  • A health drink?

  • A pill?

  • A potion?

  • A piece of jewellery?


What claims will you make about your product? 

  • Weight loss?

  • Stamina?

  • Alertness?

  • Cancer?


Who will you get to endorse your product?

  • Doctors?

  • Chemists?

  • Sports people?

  • Celebrities? 

  • Actors?

  • Musicians?


Who will you aim your product at?

  • Students?

  • Old People?

  • Parents?


Have the students present their advertisement to the class.


Which advertisements do the class feel are the most successful?


What real world products did the fictional advertisement remind them of?


After The Class


Ask the students to find example of the placebo effect in their day to day life or even use this idea from a Queensland Bad Science teacher.


“I had a placebo effect treasure hunt. Students had to find as many products that work, at least partially, via the placebo effect and take photos of them. The winner got a jar of genuine placebo headache pills. (i.e. jelly beans)”

Further Reading​

The Power Of Nothing by Micheal Spector

All Bow Before The Might Of The Placebo Effect by Ben Goldacre

TGA -What's On Medicine Label

The Doctor Will See You Now - Interview With Dr Vyom Sharma

Nicholas J. Johnson

bottom of page