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Expensive placebos work better

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TESS VIGELAND: All placebos are created equal. Right? Apparently not. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a drug’s price has a significant effect on whether it works, even if it’s just a sugar pill parading as a drug.

Jeff Tyler reports.

JEFF TYLER: Participants thought they were testing a new drug for pain relief. In fact, everybody got placebos. Only one difference. Some were told the pills cost $2.50, while others were told they only cost a dime. Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational,” was the lead researcher.

DAN ARIELY: What we found was that the expensive pill reduced pain to a much larger degree than the cheap pills.

This could be significant for the $59 billion generic drug industry. The study helps explain why patients generally prefer brand-name drugs, and why consumers think they are more effective than generic drugs, even though they have the same active ingredients. Glen Melnick is a health economics professor at USC.

GLEN MELNICK: People still prefer brand-names over generics, simply because they have higher prices, and so the assumption is that they’re better, and they’re going to have a higher effect and a higher benefit to the consumer.

And that may not be a bad assumption. Lead researcher Dan Ariely says the power of perception shouldn’t be underestimated.

ARIELY: When you stand in the supermarket, or in the pharmacy, and you’re thinking about should I buy the cheap generic or the expensive brand name. You might actually sometimes make the right decision by getting the expensive one, because you might actually get more healing power out of it.

Ariely suggests that the FDA reconsider the way it evaluates drugs. Instead of testing medicines blindly. He says the FDA should include factors like price, since such variables may play a part in how well some drugs work.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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