The Relationship Between Attention and the Placebo Effect

By Jeff Copper, MBA, PCC, PCAC, CPCC, ACG – December 18, 2023

The placebo effect has been documented to positively impact physical and mental health. How can this be? After all, a placebo is benign. It’s a sham or simulated intervention designed to produce a perceived or actual improvement. Many times, a placebo is used to reinforce a person’s expectation of getting well or moving forward. Studies show this phenomenon is pervasive. But, if a placebo is benign, how can it have positive effects? I’m calling this to your attention as evidence of the power of what you pay attention to.

You see, the placebo effect points to the importance of perception and the brain’s role in physical health. Research tells us that positive effects have more to do with our expectations than science or differences in control groups. So, that tells me that your mind (the thinking brain) can positively impact your biology (the physical brain).

If the mind can impact the physical brain, imagine what effect it can have on your life. The key to all of this is to think about what you are paying attention to. To help facilitate, ask yourself these questions: Do you focus on your disability or ability? Do you focus on what you can’t do versus what you can do? Admittedly, it takes more energy to observe the blinding flash of the obvious, but in the end, it is worth it. Let me illustrate.

Recently, a man with ADHD wanted coaching on organization and time management. We made an appointment, and I asked him to call me. When he called at the appointed time, he said he wanted coaching on organization and time management. I congratulated him, and he asked why.

I said, “You kept this appointment on time. You are doing something right. What enabled you to be on time?”

After an awkward pause, he responded, “I don’t have a clue.”

See, many people are stuck paying attention to how they believe things should be, but they never pay attention to how things actually are. Turns out this man remembered the appointment because he had put an alarm in his cell phone. Knowing that this worked for him, we were able to build a system that worked for him around using his cell phone. In the end, this illustrates the role attention can play in outcomes.

Here is another example. I once coached a woman with ADHD around the issue of control. It seems her life was out of control, but she had never paid attention to how controlling she was. In this instance, we paid attention to how she tried to control everything to prevent those around her from failing. The irony is that, the more she tried to prevent failure, the more failure there was. More specifically, the more she controlled her children, the less her kids felt life’s consequences, so her kids kept repeating mistakes and their mother kept bailing them out. It wasn’t until we paid attention to letting her kids fail that she seemed to gain control. The moral here, like in the last example, is that what you pay attention to has a huge impact on the outcome.

The same concepts are true for me. With dyslexia and a learning disability, reading for me is challenging and time consuming. To manage my world, I pay attention to what works for me rather than what I struggle with. So, when I need to research something, I interview others first to narrow down what I need to focus on and then read only what I need to read. You see, I have the ability to ask people questions to narrow the scope of what I’m doing so I don’t have to read as much volume.

In a sense, I think the “placebo effect” should be changed to the “attention effect.” Pay attention to what works, and you get positive effects. Focus on what doesn’t work and you get negative effects. The only difference is what you choose to pay attention to. So, the next time you are stuck, look at what has worked in the past to get you unstuck. Then, figure out how to leverage it.

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