High-priced sugar pills: A cure for what ails you?


If you're wondering why your expensive salon shampoo works so much better than the generic stuff at the local drugstore, this might be part of the reason...

Dan Ariely, a researcher in behavioral economics at Duke University, published a study on Tuesday suggesting that the "placebo effect" works even better when test subjects believe that their medication is expensive. Working with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ariely conducted a study in which he subjected 82 volunteers to light electric shocks. After the first shock, the volunteers were offered a pill that the researchers described as a "painkiller." Half were told that the pill retailed for $0.10 a dose, and the other half were told that it cost $2.50 a dose.

The results were pretty compelling: 61% of the subjects who were told that the medicine was $0.10 a dose found that it was effective, while 85% of the subjects who were told that the drug was $2.50 a dose found it effective. While other studies (not to mention common sense!) have shown that people value things more highly if they cost more, this study demonstrated a very impressive disparity based on cost. Of course, 82 volunteers constitutes a pretty paltry sample size, and this study should probably be backed up with more extensive analyses, but the conclusions were still impressive, and have wide-reaching consequences for generic medications; in fact, Ariely has questioned whether or not cheaper medications may not be less effective, merely by virtue of their lower price.

Given my wife's explorations into bargain-priced skincare and my own experience with the wonders of Trader Joe's vitamin aisle, I wonder how many people are paying small fortunes for lotions, conditioners, and vitamins that are no more effective than generic brands. Take that, placenta shampoo!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's found that bargain-priced beer gets him just as toasty as the pricy bottled stuff.