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.