Telling someone they’re going to feel better can result in just that. It’s called the placebo effect. And the opposite is true: “nocebo” is when people are told they might get sick, and do.
For example, researchers think so-called “wind turbine syndrome“–where people feel poorly from living near windfarms–is the result of nocebo. People feel ill-effects not because there’s evidence that wind farms cause harm, but because they have heard there might be a problem.
Which points up the alarming possibility that what we say about illness could lead people to get sick. Might the media, which loves to report on health scares, cause people to feel bad?
That’s the conclusion of new research led by Michael Witthöft, at Johannes Gutenberg University, in Germany. While on a research trip in the U.K., Witthöft and a British researcher named James Rubin, recruited 147 adults. They showed half an alarmist TV report about the dangers of Wi-Fi signals. The other half watched a package about the security of online and cellphone data.
Then they brought the subjects, one by one, into a small room, and sat them in front of a laptop. They put a band on the participants’ heads, called a “Wi-Fi amplifier,” and told them to push a button marked “Wi-Fi.”
More than half (54%) experienced “agitation and anxiety, loss of concentration or tingling in their fingers, arms, legs, and feet,” despite there being no Wi-Fi in the room (and despite there being no evidence Wi-Fi causes harm). Two participants actually left the room, because they couldn’t go through with it.
“The mere anticipation of possible injury may actually trigger pain or disorders,” says Witthöft, in a press release. Most troubling of all, nocebos could become self-fulfilling, the researchers say. Because people believe they’re going to get sick, they’ll start monitoring themselves more, and become anxious. After a while, that could make them more susceptible.
Witthöft says the media therefore needs to be responsible. “Science and the media need to work together more closely and make sure that reports of possible health hazards from new technologies are as accurate as possible.” Newsrooms: now you know.