The placebo effect in children – even infants – and animals does not even exist, we hear again and again. But that’s not true. It is present and is called “placebo-by-proxy”. This has been proven again and again by extensive and serious research.
The view that a placebo effect cannot occur in children and animals is probably the result of the misunderstanding that the placebo effect results from someone being “persuaded” to do something. However, the placebo effect is not something that can be compared to a targeted influence. It develops in both large and small patients as well as in animals as a physical and psychological reaction to the process of affection and positive expectations.
In infants, toddlers and even animals, the condition of the caregiver plays an enormous role. It is perceived unconsciously and intensively by the child or animal. Thus the relief of the reference person can be felt, which results alone from being able to do something for the small protégés. The child or animal does not need to know whether it is getting a real medicine or only homeopathy. But the parents/owners know it and change their expectations accordingly. Besides infants, small children and also animals are dependent on the nonverbal communication, it is vital for them. Hence also these enormously fine antennas. This “mirroring back” of the state of mind of the caregiver – this is what is meant by “by proxy”.
The term thus refers to a placebo effect “on a detour” or “via a mediator”. One always sees him at work where there is no verbal interaction with a devotion. And this is precisely where he proves to be particularly strong. For the sensory perception of infants and small children, as well as that of animals, is particularly pronounced when it comes to the reception and reflection of the basic mood of familiar reference persons. Direct linguistic communication often cannot keep up with this.
In other words, the placebo effect in nonverbal communication is not only present, but as a placebo-by-proxy it even has a special effect on the patient’s relationship with the trusted caregiver.
But one thing should always be clear: The occurrence of the placebo effect, with or without “proxy”, has nothing to do with a cure of the underlying disease. One should never be deceived when the patient feels so much better, possibly even confirmed, by the fact that one feels “better” oneself. If a wrong assessment of the effect would lead to a delay in treatment or even to its omission – that would be fatal.
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Scientific source: McMillan, F. D. (1999). The Placebo Effect in Animals. J Am Vet Med Assoc., 215, 992-999.
Photo: Udo Endruscheit for INH