The theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey argues that humans are genetically programmed for caution. As an example of this, he cites the curious effectiveness of placebos.
what happens when the human immune system fights a disease. Suppose you
have a disease that causes you to function at 90% of your usual
capacity. You could struggle on for weeks at this level, feeling
slightly run-down. Or your immune system could mobilize a full attack on
the disease, during which you will feel terrible, you may have a raised
temperature and other unpleasant symptoms, and you may be unable to
carry out your normal activity for a few days. Most of the symptoms of
disease are actually caused by the immune system trying to eliminate
something or other.
In some situations, a full immune
system response might be dangerous, as it makes you vulnerable to all
sorts of environmental threats that you would be unable to protect
yourself against. So instead of responding instantly to the first signs
of a disease, it makes sense for the immune system to wait until the
person is in a safe place to undergo this phase. For example, shelter,
warmth, supply of food and water, someone else to keep the fire burning
and watch out for wolves.
So what kind of signal
triggers the immune system to start fighting? We can identify three
possible signals. Firstly, when the person stops working hard and enters
a period of relaxation. (This is why so many people get ill on holiday
and at Christmas.) Secondly, when the person anticipates some future
period of stressful hard work. (This is why so many people get ill
before exams.) And thirdly, when the weather changes. (Which is why
people get ill in the Autumn and Spring.)
According to Humphrey, the placebo acts as another
signal of this kind. Especially when provided by a healthcare
practitioner with the appropriate bedside manner, it indicates to the
immune system that it is safe to mobilize a full response. It is as if the witch doctor is providing some level of "reassurance" to the body.
In a recent article, Humphrey extends this idea to social placebos, or what he calls Placebos at Large (New Scientist, August 2013, subscription required).
He suggests that social symbols and rituals perform a similar
reassuring function, allowing people (individually and collectively) to
take bold action.
People love mocking "health-and-safety" regulations, promoted by the much-derided "nanny state", as if these regulations hold us back from being the enterprising, rebellious
souls we would otherwise be. Humphrey quotes the sociologist Frank Furedi, who says,
"in a world where safety has become an end in itself, society
constantly promotes symbols and rituals to transmit the need for
Humphrey offers a contrarian interpretation. He
believes that in many areas of our lives we humans are, by nature,
cowards. Left to follow our instincts we tend to be much more cautious
than we need be – indeed, more cautious than is good for us.
are often presented with warnings that don't tell us anything - such as
packets of peanuts that solemnly announce that they "may contain nuts".
By laughing at these unnecessary warnings, we are able to project our
real fears of alien food onto some bureaucratic Other, and feel
(irrationally) reassured in the illusion that packaged food is safe for everyone except those with weird and antisocial food allergies.
Thus the implicit message of these warnings is a paradoxical one - no need to worry, nanny will do all that nasty worrying for us. Nanny as witch-doctor.
And in the corporate world, there is a wealth of corporate signals and rituals that are used to enable corporate change, including the appeal to corporate witch-doctors, also known as consultants. People often complain that corporate placebos and platitudes don't work - but the point is that they actually do work, but in a mysterious way. Isn't this an example of what Margaret Heffernan calls Willful Blindness?