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.
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.
“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
Alisa Reznick is a University of Washington student working as an editorial intern at GeekWire this quarter. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @AlisaReznick.