Saturday, October 04, 2008

An Ig Nobel prize for a study on placebo effects

Ig Nobels honor weird science.

Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely won an Ig Nobel for his study that found more expensive fake medicines work better than cheaper fake medicines.

"When you expect something to happen, your brain makes it happen," Ariely said.

Ariely spent three years in a hospital after suffering third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body. He noticed that some burn patients who woke in the night in extreme pain often went right back to sleep after being given a shot. A nurse confided to him that the injections were often just saline solution.

He says his work has implications for the way drugs are marketed. People often think generic medicine is inferior. But gussy it up a bit, change the name, make it appear more expensive, and maybe it will work better, he said.

"I've won quite a lot of academic awards; I can't think of one that makes me happier than this one," said Dan Ariely , a Duke University economist and author of the book "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions," who said his deserving work has been passed over year after year and is elated to finally get an Ig Nobel.

Ariely's Ig Nobel-winning work demonstrates the secret behind many of the Ig Nobel-winning scientists: that hidden in the humorous work is a legitimate scientific point.

Using Craigslist, Ariely recruited volunteers for a study, and printed fake brochures describing an invented pain-killer that was actually just a placebo pill. Some were told the drug was expensive; others were told it was cheap. The subjects were given electric shocks before and after they took the pill. Those who got the pricey fake medicine reported a bigger reduction in pain than those with the cheaper fake.

The experiment, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, suggested that marketing and packaging of a drug may play a role in its effects.

 "Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy," Rebecca L. Waber; Baba Shiv; Ziv Carmon; Dan Ariely, Journal of the American Medical Association, March 5, 2008; 299: 1016-1017:

To the Editor: It is possible that the therapeutic efficacy of medications is affected by commercial features such as lower prices. Because such features influence patients' expectations, they may play an unrecognized therapeutic role by influencing the efficacy of medical therapies, especially in conditions associated with strong placebo responses. To investigate this possibility, we studied the effect of price on analgesic response to placebo pills.

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