Expensive placebos work better than cheap trash

It may not be an entirely surprising result, given that the placebo effect is purely psychological, and there is an almost universal correlation in people’s minds between price and quality. But a team of experimental psychologists at Duke University and MIT have carried out a proper study into this fascinating twist on voodoo medicine.

Duke University behavioural economist Dan Ariely and his co-workers administered mild electric shocks to the wrists of 82 subjects, and used a standard protocol to measure their subjective levels of pain. Half the subjects were given a brochure describing a painkilling pill they were to be given as a newly-licensed drug costing $2.50 per dose; the other half were told that their analgesic was a bargain basement type marked down to 10 cents a tab.

The researchers found that 85% of those given the costly chalk tablets experienced a reduction in pain, whereas 61% in the cheapo group said that the pain was lessened as a result of the ‘drug’ they were given.

This chimes with what we might expect both from personal experience and common cynicism. But still it raises questions about the combination of price-sensitive consumer expectation and what little we know about the placebo effect in general.

Placebos aside, the Duke/MIT study is also interesting in the light of one of the UK’s current pharmaceutical industry scandals (there is generally at least on the go).

The makers of the stomach medicine Gaviscon are alleged to have cheated the National Health Service, and maintained an effective market monopoly since the patent on the drug expired in 1999. Reckitt Benckiser stands accused of plotting to block rival drug manufacturers from selling generic copies of Gaviscon, which would have saved the NHS some £40 million from its drugs bill.

Maybe Reckitt Benckiser will quote the Duke/MIT results when the company is hauled before the financial authorities charged with breaching competition law and abusing the regulatory process. Well it may be worth a try.

Disclaimer: This does not constitute expert public relations advice to Reckitt Benckiser, and I shall not accept liability should a defence based on the above strategy fail to impress the regulators.