Efficacy of treatment is heavily dependent on experience and expectations. Moreover, humans can generalize from one experience to a perceptually similar but novel situation. We investigated whether and how this applies to pain relief, using ecologically valid tonic pain stimuli treated by surreptitiously lowering the applied temperature. Using different face cues, participants experienced better treatment from one physician than another. Participants were then tested on six additional face cues perceptually lying between both faces. Our data from two independent samples (N=18 and N=39) show a treatment experience effect, i.e. for physically identical treatments, the initially superior physician was reported to deliver stronger pain relief. More importantly, the other faces on the perceptual continuum showed a graded effect of pain relief, indicating placebo generalization. Introducing a paradigm feasible to induce placebo pain relief, we show that the generic learning principle of generalization can explain carry-over effects between learned and novel treatment situations.
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