Patients in the placebo arms of randomized controlled trials (RCT) often experience positive changes from baseline. While multiple theories concerning such “placebo effects” exist, peculiarly, none has been informed by actual interviews of patients undergoing placebo treatment. Here, we report on a qualitative study (n = 27) embedded within a RCT (n = 262) in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Besides identical placebo acupuncture treatment in the RCT, the qualitative study patients also received an additional set of interviews at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the trial. Interviews of the 12 qualitative subjects who underwent and completed placebo treatment were transcribed. We found that patients (1) were persistently concerned with whether they were receiving placebo or genuine treatment; (2) almost never endorsed “expectation” of improvement but spoke of “hope” instead and frequently reported despair; (3) almost all reported improvement ranging from dramatic psychosocial changes to unambiguous, progressive symptom improvement to tentative impressions of benefit; and (4) often worried whether their improvement was due to normal fluctuations or placebo effects. The placebo treatment was a problematic perturbation that provided an opportunity to reconstruct the experiences of the fluctuations of their illness and how it disrupted their everyday life. Immersion in this RCT was a co-mingling of enactment, embodiment and interpretation involving ritual performance and evocative symbols, shifts in bodily sensations, symptoms, mood, daily life behaviors, and social interactions, all accompanied by self-scrutiny and re-appraisal. The placebo effect involved a spectrum of factors and any single theory of placebo – e.g. expectancy, hope, conditioning, anxiety reduction, report bias, symbolic work, narrative and embodiment – provides an inadequate model to explain its salubrious benefits.
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