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Nothing is as good as Obecalp

Dr Placebo
Last edited 24th October 2011

It’s been tested in more clinical trials than any other drug in history. Even critics admit it is effective for mild pain, mild depression, and other ailments with subjective outcomes. It has fewer side-effects than most alternatives. And now you can buy a bottle containing 50 pills of it for £3.75 ($5.95).

It’s called Obecalp and it comes in cherry flavor.

Here’s the rub: Obecalp is ‘placebo’ spelled backwards. Their website admits: “Obecalp® is a placebo and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, or illness”. It was designed for parents to please (‘placebo’ means ‘to please’) malingering children. But don’t placebos work because people believe they are ‘real’? If so, I’ve removed the fun – and potential benefit – of Obecalp you. Or have I?

A recent study suggests placebos work even if people know they are placebos. There are two plausible explanations for why this might be the case. The first is classical conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the mere expectation of food after having associated the sound with imminent food, and your body might react after popping Obecalp after it has learned (over a lifetime) to associate pill popping with symptom reduction.

Another novel explanation comes from evolutionary psychology. Imagine it is the dawn of human evolution. You feel a flu coming on but a sabre-toothed tiger is attacking your clan. If your body evoked the full immune response there would be less energy for fighting the tiger. Your survival therefore depends on ignoring the flu and increasing circulation to the skeletal muscles required for fighting. (In fact, the ‘fight or flight’ response suppresses the immune system.) Thankfully, you and your fellow tribesmen scare the tiger away, and the fight or flight response subsides. Then an authority figure – an elder or shaman – tells you everything is okay. The message from the trusted figure let you know (perhaps subconsciously) that you won’t need to run or fight for a few days. You are free to lie down and let your body’s immune system get to work.

Today tigers, village elders, and shamans are rare, but people with impressive titles like ‘Doctor’ might play the same role. If an authority figure (either in person or in an advertisement) tells you that you are going to be okay, your body (again perhaps subconsciously) might get the message that it is okay to allow the full immune response to kick in.

So even now that you know what it is, Obecalp still may be better than nothing. In the worst case, nothing is as good.

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