March 13, 2008


Your brain on placebos (The Ottawa Citizen, March 13, 2008)

A recent study in The Journal of American Medicine found that the effects of placebos vary according to price. Study participants received mild shocks before and after taking a fake pain reliever. Half were informed the pills cost $2.50 each. The other half were led to believe a dose cost 10 cents.

Not surprisingly, members of both groups claimed to have experienced considerable pain relief after taking the pills. However, 85 per cent of the participants who thought they had taken an expensive drug reported positive results, compared to only 61 per cent of those who believed they had received a cheaper product.

The lead researcher claims that our bodies secrete fewer natural pain relievers when we take a discounted drug because we perceive it as being less effective. Our brains, it seems, have expensive tastes.

This might explain why so many people insist that their doctors prescribe only brand-name medications when equally effective but less expensive generic drugs are available. If people actually respond better to pricier medication, it's understandable why they request it. However, the actual versus perceived benefits are difficult to measure, and the only party guaranteed to benefit when someone pays too much for a drug is the company that makes it.

People associate cost with quality in areas other than medicine, too. An American liberal arts school called Ursinus College decided in 2000 to take action against declining enrollment. The college's trustees had a theory: potential students were staying away because they perceived similar schools with higher tuitions to be better.

So the school raised tuition by almost 18 per cent. Within four years, first-year enrollment increased by more than a third.

...he could have snagged a $20 hooker down by the Holland Tunnel--she'd have been just as good as the high cost one and saved him the investigation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2008 6:22 AM

It's been a long time in New York City since hookers hung out by the tunnels. I haven't seen one in the last eight years (thanks Rudi).

Posted by: Matt Cohen at March 13, 2008 7:50 AM

The same phenomena has been noticed with software. A graphics package at $100 sits on the shelves until the price is raised to $250. Which is also why "free" software is doomed to fail, no matter how good it might be, unless someone repackages it and charges for it.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 13, 2008 2:27 PM

That's certainly true if by success you mean earning money from the software and not the support.

But I use FreeMind every day and it is free. Safari is based on, and Firefox is completely, open software. Typesetting with TeX using LyX. Video game car racing with Racer. Music with iTunes. Mail with Mac Mail. My old Mac software (namely the irreplaceable MORE 3.1, which is also free) using the Basilisk emulator. FTP with Cyberduck. Postbooks for accounting. PostgreSQL for database. Linux runs on countless servers, routers, NAS boxes, cellphones, etc.

On the other hand, I still use the PC version of MS Word 97 to write, and MS most likely won't get a cent out of me again (it came with an old PC that long ago died) because I can use Crossover to run it on a Macintosh, the kernel of the OS being free software!

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 13, 2008 4:27 PM