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thorninmud's avatar

Should accommodation be made for therapeutic delusion?

Asked by thorninmud (18151 points ) April 17th, 2012

It seems to me that there are instances where beliefs can have a positive effect even when they are based on a questionable premise. An obvious example is the placebo effect: the belief that there is a valid scientific principle behind, say, a homeopathic medicine can be enough to provoke a very real physiological response that brings relief to the patient. The belief itself is delusional (from my point of view), but therapeutic. You could perhaps argue that the patient is better off for his delusion, and that to dispel that delusion would render him a disservice.

Then of course, there are cases where such a delusion would actually prevent a person from seeking a more effective, scientifically sound treatment that would bring even greater benefit. For that reason, it’s essential that doctors know the science, how the placebo effect works, and what the best alternatives are.

In many European countries, even mainstream doctors will routinely prescribe homeopathic medicines in case where there are no other clearly superior treatments. I suspect that the doctors don’t believe in the scientific basis of homeopathy, but they do know that the pills won’t have any side-effects, and often bring some real relief. Could it be then that the public at large is, on the whole, better off believing in this stuff?

But this is just an example. I would propose that there are other examples of therapeutic delusion, but I’ve already made you read too much. So, is the dispelling of delusion always an unqualified good? If allowances are made for therapeutic delusion in its various forms, how can it be kept in bounds?

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9 Answers

Tropical_Willie's avatar

Homeopathic medicine is not delusional, it is just not “main stream”. And maybe based on non-patented and corporate owned chemical.
No money for the corporation and not being patented does not mean it will not improve the patient and their symptoms. Aspirin was once a non “main stream” homeopathic remedy later patented by Bayer ( came from people sucking on Willow bark ).

marinelife's avatar

There are many benign delusions. I see no reason to disabuse people of them.

I think a would-be dispeller needs to weigh the good against the bad very carefully.

nikipedia's avatar

I am sure there are situations where the delusions are worth it, but it seems to me that even these therapeutic delusions are subject to the same problems as any other lie. How likely is it that the truth will come out? If the person being deceived finds out, how dire are the consequences? Especially in the case of a physician, it seems important to me to preserve a trusting relationship—if the deceived person were to find out about the lie, s/he would be rightfully reluctant to go back to the doctor.

wundayatta's avatar

Actually, you do not need to be deluded for the placebo effect to work. There was some research about that in the last few years, but I don’t remember where. In any case, it was very interesting to me because I noticed the effect in myself. The doctor could tell me it was a placebo and tell me to take it, and it would work. I think it’s because we understand that it is a metaphor that helps us to harness the power of our minds to make ourselves better.

Homeopathic medicine is sugar water or sugar pills. Whatever else is in them is in too small amounts to measure. The theory is that the trace amounts train your body how to respond to the illness. Nice theory. It doesn’t matter why it works, that much as long as it works often enough and doesn’t harm. Belief in it is not necessary, although a lot of people seem to think it is. I assure you that it works whether you believe in the supposed mechanism or not because what is really working is your own mind power. Your ability to focus. I have ten other techniques that will do the same thing. But popping a pill is the easiest. The others require a lot more work.

I don’t think it is fair to call it a delusion. I think there is a reliable mechanism. Perhaps some people need to be deluded, but I doubt it. Myths work whether we believe in them or not. There are multiple ways to “believe in” things. I can think “god” is real, or I can think that the idea of God helps me focus my mental energies to do what I want to accomplish.

So, “accommodation” should be made. It is a tool in the doctor’s arsenal. Nothing to be afraid of. Nothing weird. Just another way to harness the power of the body and mind.

Trillian's avatar

As in everything else; on a case by case basis. We live in a world shaded in greys. The only absolute that I am sure of is that there are no absolutes.

thorninmud's avatar

@wundayatta Do you think it would be just as valid in pharmaceutical testing for the subjects to know whether or not they’re getting a placebo?

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

I don’t know. When I was living in South Africa in the 70’s, our house girl’s infant son became very ill – started as a cold and probably went into pneumonia, but even with all of our urging and offering to pay the doctor, she only wanted to take him to the “witch doctor.” Finally, when the infant was on his death bed, she agreed to go to a doctor, but the child died as my father was racing them to the hospital.

ratboy's avatar

It’ll be a cold day in hell on which anyone dispels one of my delusions.

wundayatta's avatar

@thorninmud I think they do know that they might be getting a placebo already.

If you are asking about testing the case where they know for sure it is a placebo or not—I believe such tests are being conducted. I think they should be conducted. We need to test multiple conditions.

So they would know if it’s real or not. Not know if it’s real. Know if it’s fake, etc etc.

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