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The Placebo Effect of God May 16, 2011

Posted by nrhatch in Magick & Mystery, Mindfulness, People.

Wikipedia ~ Santa Claus (in Public Domain)

Tell a child that Santa is making a list and checking it twice and the child starts to monitor and modify his or her behavior to make sure they don’t end up with a coal-filled stocking.

The child’s improved behavior has nothing  to do with Santa actually making a list or checking it twice.

It’s a placebo effect caused by the child’s belief in the existence of an omniscient being.

Because the child believes that Santa is watching, they modify their choices.

The same is true for adults who believe that a personified God is “looking down on them from Heaven.”

Adults who monitor their thoughts and modify their behavior due to a belief in an omniscient God watching their every move are transformed by the placebo effect of God . . . whether or not “God” is actually watching.

Is that a good thing . . . or a bad thing?

No rules.  Just write!



1. Greg Camp - May 16, 2011

In the polytheistic view, the gods are our elder relatives. Sometimes, they’re like a crazy aunt or a drunken uncle, and other times, they’re a wise parent or grandparent.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

I’m pretty sure that my grandmother conspired with “the angels” to save my wedding day.

The day before I got married . . . 95 degrees and 95% humidity. Not ideal for the outdoor reception we had planned at my parents’ house.

The day after our wedding . . . torrential downpours. Also, not conducive to a backyard celebration.

The day of our wedding . . . 75 degrees and sunny. Bliss!

2. suzicate - May 16, 2011

I actually know someone who reminds everyone that God is watching them yet she thinks god does not see what she does…hmmmm!?!

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

Maybe she’s wearing an “invisibility” cloak like the one in Harry Potter? 😉

3. adeeyoyo - May 16, 2011

Briefly, Nancy, I don’t think behaving oneself because ‘God is watching’ is the way to go at all. I believe that God is love and that if we conduct ourselves out of love for God and fellow human beings and out of faith that God exists then we are on the right track. I have heard people judging others and saying ‘he/she uses God as a crutch’ (ie your placebo effect). I don’t believe we should stand in judgement of others or other religions as we do not know what is in their hearts.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

I tend to agree with you, Adee ~ at least in part. We should “do good” and “be good” because it makes us “feel good” ~ using an internal locus of control (our conscience) as a guide rather than behaving only because we are afraid that something or someone out there is “watching” and “judging” us.

Some people do use “God” as a crutch. That’s not a judgment, it’s a direct observation. Instead of taking active steps to improve their situation, they pray and wait for God to do the “heavy lifting” for them.

Tilly Bud - May 16, 2011

In my experience, God expects us to do the heavy lifting ourselves and trust that He has a reason for it.

I’ve never found God to be a crutch; though He is often a comfort.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

The beliefs that form the foundation of our faith often are a source of comfort to us.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom . . . Let it be.

adeeyoyo - May 18, 2011

Very true, Nancy. I believe that we should ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us’ – if we can, lol. 😉

nrhatch - May 18, 2011

When I look within for guidance, I re-cognize my connection and inter-relation with everyone else.

From that, I realize that I cannot harm anyone else without harming myself in the process. Kindness reaps its own rewards.

4. CMSmith - May 16, 2011

Hmmm. I thought you said you were done with religious posts for a while. . .

I hope this one goes smoothly.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

That was my intent . . . sometimes Spirit steers me in a different direction entirely.

Yesterday, in response to the piece on HAARP, people seemed to want to toss “God” into the equation rather than looking at the “science.” That collective response prompted this post.

5. oldancestor - May 16, 2011

As a Santa Claus worshipper, I am offended by your mention of false idols in this post.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

I thought you might be. 😉

Santa is such a benevolent loving being ~ I love Santa. Ho Ho Ho!

6. Tilly Bud - May 16, 2011

It’s an interesting theory. Do we say the same about our children? We expect them to behave well, not do drugs, etc. They know they will be letting us down – even if we never know about it – if they do those things we feel are bad. Is that also a placebo effect?

My God expects be to behave in a certain way, out of love for Him and my fellow man: He expects love, respect, kindness. Behaving that way makes me feel better. If I am unkind or disespectful, I always regret it. It may be a placebo; I don’t know.

But isn’t the point of placebos to make us feel better?

Works for me 🙂

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

You say “they know they will be letting us down” . . . that means that you are encouraging them to focus on what OTHERS think of their actions, instead of asking them to focus on how THEY feel about their actions.

I view that as potentially problematic.

Anytime we encourage people to use an external locus of control, we are encouraging them to worry about their reputations (and their egos) . . . rather than their innate goodness (and their spirit).

Based on recent research, it appears that our mirror neurons encourage us to be kind and compassionate. The more we look within for guidance, the more in touch we become with those mirror neurons.

Why We Don’t Need God To Be Good:

Thanks to the mirror neurons:

With the discovery of mirror neurons by Italian neuroscientist Giaccomo Rizzolatti in the 1990s, we now have physiological proof of why — and how — our species became hard-wired for goodness.

Mirror neurons are miraculous cells in the brain whose sole purpose is to harmonize us with our environments. By reflecting the outside world inward, we actually become each other — a little bit; neurologically changed by what is happening around us.

Mirror neurons are the reason that we have empathy and can feel each other’s pain. It is because of mirror neurons that you blush when you see someone else humiliated, flinch when someone else is struck, and can’t resist the urge to laugh when seeing a group struck with the giggles. (Indeed, people who test for “contagious yawning” tend to be more empathic.) These tiny mirrors are the key to most things noble and good inside us.

7. Maggie - May 16, 2011

I think we should be good for the sake of being good, not necessarily because God might be watching. But I also imagine God as a kind, gentle figure and not as a raging deity who will smite us for small offenses.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

I agree, Maggie. When I act with kindness and compassion, I feel happier . . . right here, right now.

8. kateshrewsday - May 16, 2011

Back to the ten-foot knives and forks in Heaven and Hell story: when we act with compassion to our fellow men, when we value the individuals who surround us, we can make earth a wonderful place.
When I go to the centre of me, though, I can feel a ripple of laughter from the Great Placebo.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

I love that story ~ those who cooperate to feed others at the table flourish . . . those who don’t cooperate, starve. 😀

Perfectly expressed, Kate:
When I go to the centre of me, though, I can feel a ripple of laughter from the Great Placebo.

Same here. As soon as I go within, a smile forms on my lips and a wellspring of Joy ripples through my being . . . filling me with love, laughter, hope, peace, and all good things.

9. Piglet in Portugal - May 16, 2011

I certainly believe God only helps those who help themselves. Prayer for God’s intervention alone makes me smile.
I wonder when I look around at the greed and pointless violence in the world whether there is a God or was he a fictional character created to have us live in a constant state of fear.
I like to believe there is a God and yes I suppose if you try and live by his commandments it does affect the way you behave.
The Muslim religion fascinates me…they are certainly in fear of their God who I think has a more profound effect on their lives than the God Christians worship.

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

Wonderful comment, PiP!

I believe in a “higher power” but not in the personified “God” of Christianity or Judaism or Islam. I see/feel “God” within me as a constantly renewing source of Spiritual Energy . . . the loving source of all ~ tying us all together through the Spirit Within.

In my experience, when we stop looking “out there” for answers, and look within for guidance, Spirit Lights The Way and directs our attention where it is needed.

Piglet in Portugal - May 16, 2011


I believe the Spirit of life is within us, and as such we must take responsiblility for our actions. God can only guide us
Islam, is the word I was looking for:)

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

When I “tap into” that spiritual energy, all good things bubble up from inside ~ joy, love, laughter, hope, peace, compassion, kindness . . . feeling me with well-being.

10. Pseu - May 16, 2011

Well I’m in the minority here, obviously! As Spock would say,
“Humans make illogical decisions.”


nrhatch - May 16, 2011

Highly illogical. 😉

I believe that you and OA are on the same page, Pseu. A “page” that I enjoyed for 25 years.

11. souldipper - May 16, 2011

The other dimensions are probably loving every minute of this, Nancy. They are probably saying, “There’s our Nancy – out kicking sheep again!”

Whahoo! Source, Creator, Universe, All our Ancestors, God…whatever the name – the whole realm is probably singing a collective “we love you, Nancy”!!

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

Thanks, Amy. That made me smile. 😀

I suspect that part of my “life purpose” is encouraging people to shake themselves loose from their moorings long enough to examine whether the lives they are living are “their own.” As long as Spirit keeps “inspiring” me to speak up . . . I dare not shut up.

Go team!

12. Joanne - May 16, 2011

Okay, before I start ranting about the “dangers” of religion, I thought I’d better recall what I learned in one of my psychology classes years ago… No time now to look up papers or textbooks ~ someone want to help me out here…?

I believe it’s Marloe’s stages of development. We all go through each stage ~ beginning with chaos.

We need to move from chaos into order and often find it in the form of some formal social institution ~ education, religious or corrective.

We eventually learn that these authorities don’t have all the answers to our deeper questions and begin to search outside the box.

When we start to exert our independence and discover we have free will and choices, we may even go through a type of rebellious stage ~ against authority figures and social conventions.

The final stage finally moves us out of our external into our internal locus of control…

That’s where we all hope to be ~ and others to be ~ sooner or later in our adult (mature) lives. Adults who are ruled by fear have not yet developed their independent thinking skills. When we understand that, we will be less intimidated and offended by their comments and more empathic towards their own hidden fears and what they may be internalizing about themselves…

This helps me to “consider the source” and take everything with a grain of salt ~ even though it can still be annoying to see grown-ups judging others by their own irrational thought processes.

Best motto that comes to mind here:
“Live and let live.”

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

Thanks, Joanne.

We are socialized to focus on and protect our reputation with others. We use our fear-based beliefs to conform to the norm.

Once we start using an internal compass for our behavior, the power and control that others have exerted over us dissipates in large measure ~ giving us the freedom to become who were were always meant to be.

Once we know WHO we are . . . we know HOW to live. And let live. 😀

13. Booksphotographsandartwork - May 16, 2011

Hmmmm I might be the only one who hasn’t done that. I cuss like a sailor. Not that that is a good thing. And would have no problem killing an evil murderer. Probably why I never fit in with any of those bible studies at churches. I’m too much myself. I do believe in Jesus but I know he made me, me. People in church used to always say that I needed to move out of my comfort zone and serve God (do something they needed), I always said NO, God made gave me this comfort and I am staying right in it!

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

Have I told you today that you’re my favorite? 😉

I agree with you 100%. We are not intended to be pale carbon copies of each other. We are intended to let our own unique light shine.

God dwells within me . . . as me.

We can’t all be Mother Teresa . . . that was HER job. 😀

14. carldagostino - May 16, 2011

The placebo is not real but to the uninitiated child Santa is very real. So the “checking” the list is a way to subdue children. Just like that “punitive” God that is not all loving and gives us toys based on the conditionality of this alleged love. I hope Santa and God are more than IRS accountants of our lives

nrhatch - May 16, 2011

Me too, Carl. Me too.

We each have something unique to offer to the world. When we hold it back (out of fear of ridicule, condemnation, or censure), we stifle the happiness and joy that we could access by becoming more fully who we were always intended to be.

Nature does not ask, “What do they want me to be?” . . . it’s beauty lies in its authenticity.

15. eof737 - May 17, 2011

Placebos have been known to help some overcome their ailments or other conditions… For what it’s worth, if it helps one feel good and thereby it works, I’d say go for it! 🙂

nrhatch - May 17, 2011

Children start to “behave” because mom asnd dad are watching. Over time, they shift to an internal locus of control as their moral values begin to take root.

For people who never developed an internal locus of control programmed to “good” (e.g., Hitler, bin Ladin, Gaddafi) . . . it might be a step in the right direction.

16. granny1947 - May 17, 2011

Oh my goodness…what a brilliant clip…thank you NR.

nrhatch - May 17, 2011

Ooh . . . yours is the first comment I spied this morning. What a delightful way to wake up!

Thanks, Granny! 😀

17. Sandra Bell Kirchman - May 17, 2011

I’m probably in the minority here, but I believe it is hurtful to encourage your child’s belief in Santa Claus, or the tooth fairy, or the Easter Bunny. People say what harm does it do? It’s just an innocuous little fantasy.

However, I, a fantasy writer, believe that these little fantasies teach children that there is some larger than life being outside of us who will give to us presents and candies and money. When they get out into the wide world, they will expect other beings to give them…presents and candies and money. What will they do when these things are not forthcoming?

I also do not believe in a God who will reward us when we are good and punish us when we are bad. There is no such being imo. I do believe in the Spirit within who links us all together. And I do believe in the small still voice within who will answer any question we ask. We just have to be ready to hear the answer…and we have to know which question to ask. The rest is easy.

Finally, I believe that we have all the answers within us. I think that we are perfect as individuals, and that the best way to live is when we are in touch with our inner selves, that wellspring of joy that Nancy talks about.

When we lose touch with that wellspring (and, oh yes, it does happen), then we lose sight of who we are, what we are here for, and where we are going. That leads to conditions of hell.

Oh yeah, and I don’t believe in hell. I think that is a condition (not a place) that we create for ourselves right here on Planet Earth. It is our choice – create heaven or create hell (or even create limbo). Heaven? Hell? Hmmmm…

How do we do that? We choose a way of life that leads to one or the other. I don’t mean murder or thievery or things like that. I mean doubting self, judging others (and self), going for power, being greedy, being overly opinionated…well, I could go on and on but I bet you get the idea.

I don’t feel much like prevaricating today. I am taking a leaf from Nancy’s book and saying like (I think) it is 😀

nrhatch - May 17, 2011

Thanks, Sandra. I agree with all the points you make, except perhaps the first.

I believed in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny as a tiny tot. Before “they” stopped their nocturnal visits, I had already figured out that my parents had filled those roles for our enjoyment.

Because we live in such a “close knit” society, kids compare notes about Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. I would have felt like I was missing out on a lot of fun by not having these fictional characters visit. And if my parents had revealed the truth to me at age 3 or 4 or 5 . . . that would put pressure on me not to share the truth with peers.

That said, anyone who still believes in Santa at age 15, or 20, or 25 . . . well, they need a reality check. 😉

carldagostino - May 17, 2011

We have to give kids credit. They are pretty astute figuring these things out. I knew Santa was a fraud because the one whose lap I sat on had his beard attached with bandage tape and had a hint of whiskey and cigar about him. (I do admit I was 37 years old but hey, give me some credit). Children know the difference between reality and make-believe and just because they have not closed that world does not mean they don’t understand. They just have another dimension in which to dwell at times that adults have lost forever.

nrhatch - May 17, 2011

Wonderful point, Carl.

When children turn a cardboard box into a spaceship, they know they can’t really fly to the moon . . . but they don’t see that as reason to rein in their imagination. 🙂

18. carldagostino - May 17, 2011

OH, now you tell me. I just got a big refrigerator box this morning….

nrhatch - May 17, 2011

See, you haven’t lost that other dimension forever . . . it’s still waiting in the wings. 😀

19. Be Still And Know That I Am God | Spirit Lights The Way - November 17, 2013

[…] posts:  The Placebo Effect of God * What is G~O~D? * Why I Speak of Spirit not God * God is NOT A Christian, Jew, or Moslem * […]

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