The Nocebos of Politics


Everyone has heard of the placebo effect. You take a pill that you think is real and because subjective reality is caused by your brain predicting stuff - oh my prophetic soul - the fake pill causes real physical changes. However, there is a lesser-known companion effect called the nocebo effect. This happens when the patient anticipates negative side effects of a treatment even if that treatment is a placebo, or before it has been administered. You feel the pain of the needle before the injection. As with the placebo effect, the pain is real because pain is the subjective experience rather than an objective event. In politics, we can spot placebos a mile off - which renders them strikingly ineffective as placebos. Lip service, token gestures, thoughts and prayers, clap for carers: all seek to create a positive effect without doing any of the heavy lifting involved in real change. To misquote GK Chesterton, they are the tax that indifference pays to virtue. And like taxes, they are familiar and inevitable. 

However, nocebos are having a far more damaging effect on our political culture and, in a more existential way, on our planet. The nocebos are when people imagine themselves oppressed, suffering and disenfranchised when in fact they are not, but they - comprising a significant portion of the body politic - anticipate the pain and vote for politicians who in the words of Bill Clinton ‘feel their pain’. When Emanuel Macron’s government introduced a modest fuel tax as part of its policy of reducing carbon fuel consumption, the rage of the Gilet Jaunes took many commentators by surprise. No one is starving because of the fuel tax; no one will lose their livelihoods. Remember, it was specifically aimed at a reduction of diesel use. The Gilet Jaunes also fiercely imposed new speed limits on country roads. This was le Jeremy Clarkson of protest movements. The fury and frustration the protests tapped into were real enough, but fury and frustration are subjective experiences - albeit experienced en masse - and they are wholly out of proportion with what was being put forward. The protest in turn was and is used by both the far right and far left who hate Macron and don’t seem to give a toss about the climate change crisis which demands that diesel alongside other carbon-based fuels be phased out as quickly as possible, regardless of the economic damage.   

The Gilet Jaunes is only one of many political protests which wince at the pain of the needle before it’s even touched the skin. Our politics are all about addressing grievances and placating suffering that exists far more in the imagination than in reality. Brexiters imagine they are oppressed by the EU; nationalists that they are ‘swamped’ by immigrants and refugees. MAGA supporters believe they suffer from a decreased power and increased victimization. All Lives Matter anticipates that the side effect of Black Lives Matter is white are for two seconds not the focus of attention. Perhaps most pathologically, Anti Vaxxers see themselves as menaced by a combination of big pharma, the government, the liberals and Bill Gates; and they damage their health and those around them in the fixed belief that they are attempting to avoid damaging themselves and those around them. 

Every time a politician combats a fact with “well, a lot of people feel...” or “talk to the man on the street and they’ll tell you...” they are appealing to and amplifying the nocebo effect. Net immigration down? Tell that to the little old lady who can’t walk down her street. Climate change an established fact? Many people disagree. Also, social media across the board promotes the nocebo effect. Any whinge, pet peeve, vague foreboding is magnified into a rant, online abuse and scaremongering misinformation. The factual, the nuanced, the rational get drowned out: “For there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently”. 

And this is the damage. We’re pulling out healthy teeth to get rid of imaginary cavities. Undergoing dangerous procedures on pimples meanwhile the tumour in our liver is as fat as a large mouse. It is difficult to know how to stop this because it is not a single ideology so much as a modus operandi, a way of thinking prevalent on both sides (though mostly the ascendant right, let’s not kid ourselves). I don’t want to despair but I feel we’re waiting for some shock that will wake everyone up. And yet the shocks have come - Australia and California burning, global pandemic, record-breaking hurricane season - and the nocebos are doubling down, spiralling more dramatically out of control. 

John Bleasdale


  1. This peice contains some very interesting points of consideration but I am unsure what your overriding theme is meant to be?

  2. Todd has a point. Does this piece have any value beyond entertaining pseudo intellectuals over their Sunday morning grapefruit?

  3. This is a piece with naked true facts. Simply facts put bluntly. Well done.

  4. Mulata de Sanzala is right, Roy CJ and Todd Wood are wrong. The most obvious example of a nocebo is the reaction of Boris Johnson, Trump, Bolsinaro and other such to the COVID virus. For a medical question they have nothing but a political marketing answer. Facts don't matter to them, because their only concern is to create hysterical arguments which they can win by merely exhausting their opponents. At the end of the twentieth century, liars on the political right were usually fairly careful in what they said -- their lies were well constructed. In the twenty-first century, there is a new breed of right-wing liar. They're like flies in a bottle: they tell a lie, get pinged for it, then simply tell another one, get pinged for it, tell another one, get pinged for it, tell another one....... and so on, until those answering their lies are worn out and can do no more. The last lie told can therefore stand as truth, and the liars have had their first victory. Then the process can begin again.

    1. Well said... and, may I say, that process is frustrating as hell for those of us who try to live and react in a way that aligns with facts. Personally, I think that there have always been, and always will be, humans who are unable to understand or emotionally/psychologically handle all the facts, and who will always be drawn to information that supports their inner dialogue. Until good (and I mean unbiased, thorough, and continuous) education is available and supported for EVERYONE on the planet, the world will continue repeating and exacerbating conflict, and go right on living in ways that negatively affect environmental health. Solutions abound and we all must do our best to convince politicians to do what is best for every human. But, wow, sometimes the audacity of liars and self-centered idiots (and what they are ALLOWED to do and say) makes me despair about the future...

  5. lies are just a way of bottling demons !

  6. 1) How does a tax on fuel reduce its use and affect carbon emissions? What alternatives were proposed? This is lazy politics and planning and if the net use of fuel remains unchanged, it was a tax that affected the livelihood of every user to the benefit of the government only. 2) The most prevalent nocebo affect popularized by the media concerning climate actually goes something like, "97% of climate scientists agree that.....". Yet the author uses the opposing view to demonstrate nocebo. (His politics are showing.) 3) Dramatic conclusion without substance. I actually have high praise for the author after reading "Prisoners of Geography", which is how I found this site. But, this commentary I find neither balanced nor well nuanced.

    1. Hi 'Unknown', the author you are commenting on is in fact John Bleasdale and not Tim Marshall, as written both above and below the piece. It just happens to be on Tim's site.

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  9. The section on the French Gilet Jaunes is a little oversimplified. Yes, Macron's idea to increase fuel prices to try and reduce fossil fuel use was well-intended but poorly thought-through. Living where I do, a small, rural community with extremely poor public transport and the necessity for many people to travel between villages and towns for work commitments, meant that this tax impacted already poor communities to a far greater extent than those with access to convenient public transport in the bigger cities. In my region, we're (mostly) all for reducing fuel consumption and improving the environment, and already utilise carsharing (co-voiturage) and hitch-hiking as much as possible, in conjunction to searching for more local solutions to the employment issue. A phased-in approach to fuel taxes, in tandem with much-needed investment in rural public transport, would have helped ease-in the tax.


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