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Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Dr. John Kelley, is Breaking New Ground in Placebo Research

A leader in placebo research and Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Endicott College, Dr. John Kelley, actively shares his knowledge and expertise with students, faculty, and colleagues.

Professor Kelley with alumna and former student,
Kylie Isenburg, who is a research assistant at
MGH Imaging
In fact, Dr. Kelley was awarded the 2018 Distinguished Professorship for his excellence in teaching, research, and service. The award allowed him to engage more frequently with colleagues at Harvard Medical School and its affiliated teaching hospitals, including Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He says of the award, “I am very grateful to the College for its support of my research endeavors.”

With a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Master of Science and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Oregon, Kelley’s research interests include investigating the placebo effect in medical and psychiatric disorders and understanding how the patient-clinician relationship affects healthcare outcomes in medicine and psychiatry.

In addition to his work here at Endicott, Kelley is the deputy director of the Program in Placebo Studies & the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

He says, “I collaborate with a team that investigates the placebo effect. We find experts in specific medical fields who are interested in placebo effects who are interested in working with us.” To date, Kelley and his collaborators have done research in psychiatry, gastroenterology, chronic pain, asthma, and migraine headache. His more recent research projects involve open-label placebo–giving placebos openly and without deception–and authorized concealment, both of which have the potential to help reduce medication doses and perhaps help ameliorate the opioid crisis.

“Opioid addiction is a huge problem.” Kelley explains, “As many people die of opioid overdoses in a single year as all the American soldiers who died during the 20 years of the Vietnam War. If this trend continues, we will lose half a million people over the next 10 years.”

On top of all that, Kelley is also a lecturer on medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a licensed clinical psychologist.

"A good psychotherapist has to read the patient–not just what the person says explicitly, but also what they may be expressing implicitly with body language."

Furthermore, Kelley is the president of the Society for Interdisciplinary Placebo Studies, which, he says, “is an international organization of scholars who study the placebo effect from a wide variety of disciplines including anthropology, psychology and psychiatry, neuroimaging, molecular biology, physiology, sociology, medicine, and history.”

Kelley remains committed to excellence in teaching. He shed some light on this in the following Q&A.

What are the superpowers of a successful professor?
The most important traits are curiosity and perseverance. Curiosity is crucial because it leads us to ask questions and explore new ideas; and perseverance is vital because research and scholarship often take a long time to come to fruition.

What is it about Endicott that makes teaching unique?
The small class sizes allow professors to really get to know their students. In addition, because the faculty have close relations with each other, we often ask one another for help. For example, every year, I have students come to me who have not taken a course with me but who have heard from their own professor that I know something about research design and statistical analysis. A good example of this is a recent peer-reviewed research paper that I published with my colleague in biology, Dr. Bram Lutton, and one of his students. Several years ago, Bram directed his student to me for statistical help with her senior thesis. This collaboration eventually turned into a scientific publication in a professional journal.

What can be said about running a private practice while teaching and doing research at the same time? How do you think that has helped you succeed in both?
I only have a very small private practice these days because I am so involved in teaching and research. Nevertheless, since my research focuses on placebo effects in medicine and psychiatry, I think it's important that I maintain some ongoing clinical contact with patients. Part of teaching is also like psychotherapy. A good psychotherapist has to read the patient–not just what the person says explicitly, but also what they may be expressing implicitly with body language. It’s about interpersonal skills, and teaching is just like that. Even facial expressions are important, and I check in with patients the same way I do with my students. It’s a nice combination.