PlaceboApp4Daniel Jacobs had barely entered high school when he decided he wanted to wrestle. A self-described “short, chubby kid,” he barely looked the part.

But one day, Jacobs said he tracked down the school’s wresting coach and declared without introduction that he would be a wrestling champion.

“[The coach] could have laughed,” Jacobs said. “Instead, he said, ‘I believe you.’”

And he wasn’t wrong. Jacobs would go on to wrestle for the next decade, becoming a two-time All-American and competing in the U.S. National Championships.

Those three words — “I believe you” — didn’t literally help improve Jacobs’ physical skills. But without them, he may not have ever reached wrestling stardom.

That’s the placebo effect, which is also what Jacobs’ Seattle-based startup is all about.

Using an IndieGoGo campaign, Jacobs aims to fund a mobile app that allows users to tailor their own placebo effect to improve different areas of their lives. Users get their placebos through a self-selected scene and a storyline of their making — all from the screen of their smartphone.


Jacobs, a social entrepreneur, has traveled the world speaking with scientists, physicians, and technologists to understand the potential of using the placebo effect to improve quality of life.

This has nothing to do with a sugar pill or doctor’s office, but rather from something like a simulated walk in a simulated forest with your simulated friend— or wherever else you find your happy place.

Daniel Jacobs.

In the current demo version of the app, the users are taken through a series of questions about their places of comfort and happiness triggers. Using those responses, the app creates a scenario for the user that allows him or her to experience these pleasurable things. Before and after the simulated experience, the user is asked how he or she is feeling.

But you have to wonder: If a user knows it’s a placebo, doesn’t it cease to be a functioning placebo altogether? After all, the entire idea of a placebo pill is usually based of the idea that a patients believe they’re receiving treatment.

Bur Jacobs said the actual mechanism of the effect has little to do with believing something that’s untrue.

“There’s been amazing research in the last few years which seems to disprove the notion that deception is required for the placebo effect to work,” Jacobs said. “The role that a pill — or any other real or virtual thing — serves is as a transformation symbol that supports us in positive change.”

In other words, the real effect of the placebo isn’t linked to the illusion of treatment. Much like Jacobs’ own experience with the wrestling coach, the app functions on the idea that positive reinforcement that helps solve various situations that life presents.

The campaign will start with a web platform and then move to an app for the iPhone and Android. But Jacobs has another idea in mind for the app’s future: The eventual goal is to analyze user results to gain a larger perspective about the way the placebo effect works.

PlaceboApp1“By giving people an opportunity to personalize their placebo effects, we are able to gather data about what placebo rituals are most effective for which types of people,” he said. “We are able to contribute such anonymous data back to the medical community, and use it to support people in optimizing their own placebo experiences.”

One real benefit of the app is its mobility — you don’t need to go to a doctor’s office to get the placebo affect. With the right combination of simulations, Jacobs believes you accomplish things like quitting smoking with his product.

“With our app,” he said, “people can create any placebo experience they want.”

Previously on GeekWire: How this online portfolio service pivoted to donate money to designers in need

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  • Taylor

    Damn this looks cool

  • Mike Cane

    If Jacobs peeks in here, he might want to check out this silent movie:

  • Mike Cane

    Oops! Sorry. I have two Harold Lloyd movies posted at my site. I actually meant this one: Grandma’s Boy.

  • The_Tim

    Being told positive things or given positive experiences is not the “placebo effect.” The placebo effect is a specifically-defined thing that happens when you’re given a treatment that medically would have no effect on your condition but somehow works anyway.

    The app sounds cool, but it’s positive thinking, not the placebo effect.

    • Daniel Jacobs

      Hi Tim, I just wanted to respond to this… as it opens up an interesting area of inquiry. The placebo effect is not as specifically defined thing, as many would think. In fact, over the past 700 years the definition of the placebo effect has changed more than most people can imagine.

      The origin of the word placebo, for instance, is Latin and it means, “I shall please”. It comes from 14th century prayer about pleasing God in the land of the living. It was only until the last half century or so – after 200 years of shifting medical definitions – that the term began to be defined in the way Wikipedia puts it *now*. That was because the way placebos were *primarily * used was as antagonists in medical studies. But defining a placebo as “medically ineffective” and “requiring deception” has begun to change – and rapidly – as researchers have found that it SIMPLY ISN’T TRUE (perhaps you can be the one to make the Wikipedia change!).

      The placebo effect – as we are beginning to understand it – is the power of our conscious and unconscious beliefs to create positive change in our lives. Researchers from Harvard, UCLA, and other universities are showing that placebo do not always require deception to work, nor is it just our imaginations – placebos can create real, physiological changes.

      After almost 700 years of evolution, the meaning of placebo continues to be far from fixed or evolving… and our opportunity is to continue to bring it’s work, and its truth into the light. I hope this helps… and I appreciate you taking the time to think about our work!

      Some resources:

  • Daniel Jacobs

    Hello, my name is Daniel Jacobs – the Director of Placebo Effect. First I want to invite anyone who has any questions, or who might be excited by fun collaborations, to contact me. My email is daniel [at] placeboeffect [dot] com. Our work is a blend of science, technology, and spirituality – and we are making a big, fun, meaningful inquiry into how to use placebo science to improve the lives of people all over the world. Your support and collaboration means the world to us and to those we are working on behalf of.

  • MMMmm

    I love this. And – ‘believe it and achieve it’ is key to personal goal setting and satisfaction. Your description has me thinking about the effects on parenting patterns and on success . It’s not about T-ball where ‘there are no scores, everyone wins’, or about ‘self esteem’ programs that kids see right through. We all need a way to visualize future success in a real way.

  • Paul Uhlir

    I love it! I am huge believer in positive thinking, acting as if and more. Downloading after I type this. I WILL SELL 1 MILLION RECORDS as a pop star (well, maybe not)

  • Paul Uhlir

    And good point The_Tim re what is a placebo effect

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