Michael Bernstein

Michael Bernstein, Ph.D, is an experimental psychologist. He received his doctoral degree from the University of Rhode Island and completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University. He is an Assistant Professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in the Department of Diagnostic Imaging. He has received grant funding as Principal Investigator from the National Institutes of Health and private organizations.

The Nocebo Effect: When Words Make You Sick

“The nocebo effect” is a phenomenon best summarized as the occurrence of a harmful event that stems from consciously or subconsciously anticipating it. The most recent and massive demonstration of the nocebo effect was found with the claims of COVID vaccine side effects, where a significant portion of these side effects were not actually caused by the vaccine. Instead, they were the result of our negative expectations, the so-called nocebo effect.

There are myriad other examples throughout history, and recent studies have documented the critical role of the nocebo effect in treatment side effects–such as with statins for high cholesterol, the higher incidence of complaints after negative media reports of certain medicines, and the mysterious illnesses associated with the Havana Syndrome, during which dozens of US government employees fell ill after reportedly being exposed to an unidentified sound wave.

We are just discovering the power behind this effect, as explored in the groundbreaking work of a dozen top level researchers. Most importantly, researchers have investigated strategies that can be adopted by both clinicians and patients to reduce the nocebo effect.