Hot on the heels of learning that more expensive wine tastes better, we find that more expensive placebos are more effective at controlling pain:

The investigators had 82 men and women rate the pain caused by electric shocks applied to their wrist, before and after taking a pill. Half the participants had read that the pill, described as a newly approved prescription pain reliever, was regularly priced at $2.50 per dose. The other half read that it had been discounted to 10 cents. In fact, both were dummy pills.

The pills had a strong placebo effect in both groups. But 85 percent of those using the expensive pills reported significant pain relief, compared with 61 percent on the cheaper pills. [From the New York Times – More Expensive Placebos Bring More Relief.]

Considering that pain is a sort of mind-body construct, the idea that a person’s expectations about a drug could affect perceived pain is perhaps not a great surprise (certainly not to Neuromarketing readers). Makers of brand name prescription and over the counter drugs will cheer this finding, though it’s likely that a few have already spotted this phenomonon already. I’d guess the only reason we haven’t seen ads showing that “Bayer aspirin reduces pain 25% better than generic aspirin” is that the FDA might take a dim view of such claims.

As interesting as the improved performance of high-priced placebos is, I think that most press coverage of this story will miss the really exciting points:

1. Placebos at ALL price levels work. Nobody should doubt the effect that expectations can have on an individual’s experience – even the cheap placebos reduced pain in more than 60% of the subjects, and the minimal act of increasing the apparent price boosted the percent to 85%. I’d guess a bit more staging – say, having a research scientist (or an actor in a lab coat) provide a complex explanation of why the “new drug” works so well, and the amazing lab results that were obtained in its initial trials – would push the percentage even higher.

2. It’s about expectations, not just price. In this experiment, price is the variable used to set the subject’s expectations. As I suggest above, there are a variety of ways to set the expectation. What if the pills had arrived ostentatiously in a locked Halliburton case and were individually packaged in a hermetically sealed tube? The article continues,

Previous studies have shown that pill size and color also affect people�s perceptions of effectiveness. In one, people rated black and red capsules as �strongest� and white ones as �weakest.� Other information like the country where the drugs were manufactured can also affect perceptions.

“It’s all about expectations,” said the lead researcher, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke and the author of a new book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (HarperCollins). His co-authors on the report were Rebecca Waber, Baba Shiv and Ziv Carmon.

Marketing’s Key Role

All of this shows the critical role of marketing not just in helping sell a product, but in optimizing the customer experience with it. A great product that for some reason seems a bit dubious to the customer will probably end up being less satisfactory than if the customer had higher expectations for it. (The product, of course, can’t contradict those expectations in a major way.) In short, companies that don’t ensure that their marketing sets attainable but positive expectations for their product will have less satisfied customers.