Is the pain of a crisis worse because of expectations? Does the nocebo effect apply?

No doubt social media and the internet have increased the vulnerability and the potential impact of crises. Reading PR newsletters like Ragan’s PR Daily, Daily Dog and O’Dwyer’s and every issue features the crisis du jour. But sometimes I think that this frequency make crisis more of a routine thing and in a sense, less to be feared. At the same time, I think sometimes we in the crisis communication business, emphasize the terrors and risks of a crisis as part of our efforts to spur better preparation (a worthy goal in most cases).

But this fascinating article on the “nocebo” effect made me wonder about the application of this to crisis communication. The placebo effect, as you know, is when patients taking a placebo or fake medication, derive actual benefit from it based on the expectation of its benefit. A sugar pill reduces pain or blood pressure as an example, just because they expect it based on being told it is real medication with will produce results. The nocebo effect according to this New York Times article, produces a similar result but based on the fear of side effects. In other words, if you are told that the pill you are taking will make you sick, a lot of people get sick despite the fact that it may be a sugar pill with no possibility of harmful effects.

In this article, one person took 26 sugar pills after being told they were anti-depressants in a suicide attempt and did in fact experience near fatal drop in blood pressure. The mind is a powerful things. And so are expectations.

Worth thinking about as organizations consider the potential harm of major crises. No doubt major events like big oil spills and industrial accidents have significant long term impacts–particularly if not handled well. But all these social media crises, like stupid employees doing disgusting things with food and posting videos on YouTube, I doubt that they have much long term impact on a brand. Not saying they shouldn’t be handled quickly and aggressively. But I do think we in this business have to be careful about exaggerating the potential side-effects of this new age of social media-driven reputation crises.


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