The Power of Belief (or Not)

September 2, 2012 by Ken Nowack

“I can believe anything provided it is incredible.”

Oscar Wilde

Well, it’s time for electing a new president in the United States. The candidates want us to believe they are the ones to improve our economy, quality of health care provided to all Americans, reduce our budget deficit, improve international reputation and increase our national pride and overall well-being.

If you watch the conventions, read the papers, and look at the ads it would appear that all the candidates and supporters want us to believe–in them, their rhetoric and proposed solutions.

In life, we tend to see what we believe.

For example, in a recent study, 61.3% of the public and 20.2% of professionals believe that a miracle can save a person in a persistent vegetative state and 57.4% of the public said divine intervention can save a person when doctors think treatment just isn’t going to work, compared with just 19.5% of trauma professionals according to Lenworth Jacobs, M.D., of Hartford Hospital and colleagues.1.

For the study, Jacobs and his colleagues conducted a random-digit-dialing telephone survey of 1,006 Americans over the age of 18 (margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points). They also surveyed a sample of medical personnel involved in trauma care, including medical directors of trauma units, trauma nurses, and emergency services personnel.

The Power of Belief

In a study of 256 patients with chronic arm pain (rating of at least 3 on a 10-point pain scale), 133 were treated with sugar pills (one a day for 8 weeks) and the other with fake acupuncture (twice a week for 6 weeks).

In the study, 25% of the acupuncture group experienced side effects including 19 who felt pain; 31% of the pill group experienced dizziness, restlessness, nausea, dry mouth and fatigue. After 10 weeks, the pill group reported significant decreases in pain (average 1.50 points) and after 8 weeks those receiving fake acupuncture reported a drop of 2.64 points.

The fake acupuncture had greater effects than the placebo pill on self-reported pain2.

I’ve become a bit more interested in the association between spirituality and religiosity with health and the power of belief3. I’ve also wondered about the relationship between being prayed for (whether you were aware of it or not) and recovery from illness.

A study including 1,802 patients in six hospitals by Benson and his colleagues4 failed to show any impact of remote prayer although there has been some criticism of the study design (e.g., 45% of those invited to participate elected not to be part of the study, intercessors were not allowed to pray their own prayers, and it was impossible to limit prayers for those in the “control” group).

One interesting finding was that those who knew they were being prayed for did worse than the other two groups…but they believed they were getting better.

It’s important to remember that some people we interact with truly believe what they say is true, even when it is obvious it is false based on research or objective analysis, and others know that the things they say just aren’t true but want us to believe it anyway. In fact, in both cases these individuals pray for us that we believe things will get better–even if we are in a vegetative state.

At a 2008 press conference, a pair of Bigfoot hunters reported they had found the creature’s body in a wooded area of Georgia (it’s apparently big and they have physical evidence).

I’m not sure exactly what to believe, but these two hunters certainly would appear to have a great start on a future career in politics……Be well….

  1. Jacobs LM et al. “Trauma Death: Views of the Public and Trauma Professionals on Death and Dying From Injuries.” Arch Surg. 2008; 143(8): 730-735 []
  2. Kaptchuk, et al., 2006. Sham device v inter pill: Randomised controlled trial of two placebo treatments. British Medical Journal []
  3. Giesser, B., Coleman, L., Fisher, S., Guttry, M., Herlihy, E., Nonoguch, S., Nowack, D., Roberts, C. & Nowack, K. (2005). Living Well: An integrative approach to wellness with multiple sclerosis. Paper presented at Annual Conference of The American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRM) Board/American Society of Neurorehabilitation (ASNR), Chicago, Illinois. UCLA Department of Neurology and National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Southern California Chapter []
  4. Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW Jr, Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, Hibberd PL. (2006). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. 151(4):934-42 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Wellness

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  1. Really interesting and relevant for me Ken. I have a very sore arm and just started acupuncture! I’ll let you know. Beyond the relevance, it is interesting to consider the power of belief…my favorite sentence was your last one.

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