Irving Kirsch
Associate Director of the Program in Placebo Studies & Lecturer in medicine, Harvard Medical School.  

Hypnosis as a Non-Deceptive Extra-Strength Placebo

Placebos have been shown to be effective for many clinical conditions, but the assumption that deception is needed is a barrier to its use. Recently, studies have shown that placebos can be effective even when presented openly and honestly as placebos.  However, clinicians report being uncomfortable asking clients or patients to take “sugar pills.” Hypnosis can provide an alternative means of generating a placebo effect without deception.  Similarities between hypnotic suggestions and placebos include the following:

  1. Both affect the same clinical conditions
  2. Expectancy manipulations can enhance both placebo and hypnotic responding
  3. Neither requires the presence of a trance state
  4. Hypnotic inductions have no specific components
  5. Suggestion is the active ingredient of both

Differences include the greater role of stable individual differences in hypnotic responding than placebo responding and findings showing that hypnotic suggestions can be more effective than placebo pills.  Finally, Niels Bagge has developed an intervention in which clients or patients are asked to imagine taking imaginary pills, a procedure that can be implemented with or without inducing hypnosis and that blends open-label placebos with clinical hypnosis.



Irving Kirsch is Associate Director of the Program in Placebo Studies and a lecturer in medicine at the Harvard Medical School (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center).  He is also Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the Plymouth University (UK), University of Hull (UK) and the University of Connecticut (USA).  He has published 10 books, more than 250 scientific journal articles and 40 book chapters on placebo effects, antidepressant medication, hypnosis, and suggestion.  He originated the concept of response expectancy.  His 2002 meta-analysis on the efficacy of antidepressants influenced official guidelines for the treatment of depression in the United Kingdom. His 2008 meta-analysis was covered extensively in the international media and listed by the British Psychological Society as one of the “10 most controversial psychology studies ever published.” His book, The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, has been published in English, French, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, and Polish, and was shortlisted for the prestigious Mind Book of the Year award.  It was the topic of 60 Minutes segment on CBS and a 5-page cover story in Newsweek. In 2015, the University of Basel (Switzerland) awarded Irving Kirsch an Honorary Doctorate in Psychology.