02:40am Wednesday 01 April 2020

From prejudice to placebos – psychology today

Associate Professor Fiona White and Dr Ben Colagiuri will discuss how their research supports psychological well-being and mental health in the community at an Australian Psychological Society symposium on Tuesday, 11 November, to mark National Psychology Week (9-15 November).


During Professor White’s 25 years researching social psychology a major focus has been reducing prejudice between groups and promoting better understanding.

Her latest development is a successful intervention tool that uses the internet to overcome prejudice resulting from anxiety and lack of knowledge.

The program involves hour-long sessions undertaken in classrooms over an eight-week period. During that time the participants, chatting over the internet, first compare and share knowledge before working together towards achieving a common goal.

“Researchers have often measured prejudice but far fewer have developed strategies to reduce it. This program preserves identity and distinctiveness at the same time as integrating the two groups in a shared identity in pursuit of a common goal,” Associate Professor White said.

In the three-year study, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), 188 Christian and Muslim students in Year 8 explored the similarities and differences of their religions but also of personal interests such as books, music and sport. Crucially they then collaborated on a strategic project – related to environmental sustainability in Australia.

“My University of Sydney colleague and I were delighted that our published results in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology show an initial marked reduction in bias was maintained for 12 months after the eight-week intervention when students were in Year 9. Its impact was most significant for the Muslim group.”

A suitably adapted version of the intervention is now being trialled with university students to address prejudice between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and between homosexuals and heterosexuals in Sydney.


A major motivation for Dr Ben Colagiuri’s research is that millions of dollars of government funds are invested yearly in testing drugs using double-blind placebo controlled trials.

“Recently there has been a slight decline but these randomised trials are still very much the gold-standard test for measuring the effectiveness of drug treatments and many psychological interventions,” said Dr Colagiuri.

These tests rely on neither the patients nor the researchers (ie double blind) knowing who in the trial of a drug will receive a placebo (sham treatment) or the ‘active’ treatment being tested. For example if saline treatment (placebo) and morphine were administered for pain the patient receiving the placebo would still get some benefit based on their belief it was an active treatment.

“Importantly the person getting the active treatment is also assumed to receive a placebo effect,” said Dr Colagiuri. His team has been funded by the ARC to undertake rare research testing the central assumption that the placebo effect and the response to the active treatment add on to each other. The effectiveness of a treatment is currently considered to be the response to the active treatment minus the placebo effect.

“If that is wrong then how we test the true effectiveness of the active treatment will need to be rethought.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the placebo effect is how perception alters the effectiveness of the drug. “I’ve researched how telling someone they might suffer side effects will influence the likelihood of them doing so,” Dr Colagiuri said.

“Our ARC research will explore problematic aspects of the placebo effect including that if people guess, with a better than chance accuracy, that they are receiving the active ingredient not the placebo – what impact does this perception have? There is surprisingly little testing of the success of ‘blinding’ participants but what has been done suggests the failure rate may be higher than previously thought.”

Media contact:

Verity Leatherdale: (02) 9351 4312, 0403 067 342 or [email protected]

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