Blogs | January 9, 2018

The psychology of pain relief: why spend £3 when you can spend 30p?

If a pill is more expensive it can actually feel like it works better. Here's how.

If you’re one of the millions around the world who woke up with a bad head on New Year’s Day, you probably popped a couple of painkillers. But which did you go for: the cheap ones, or the expensive brand in the flashy packaging? 

If it was the latter, was it because you assumed pricier pills would hit the spot better? There may be some truth in it – but not necessarily because the ingredients are any better. 

If a person is made aware that a pill is more expensive it might give greater pain relief simply because the person expects more, a study suggests. 

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely and his team asked 82 men and women to rate the pain caused by electric shocks to their arms, before and after taking a pill. The pill was in fact a placebo (dummy).

Half the group were led to believe their pill cost $2.50. The other half thought their pill had been discounted to 10 cents.

Both groups reported that their pain had been relieved to some degree by the pills. But 85% of those who took the expensive pills said they experienced “significant” pain relief, compared with 61% of those on the cheaper pills. (The study corrected for individual levels of pain tolerance) .

Brain chemicals
It’s because when we expect to get pain relief, Ariely explains, our brain secretes a morphine-like substance which makes the pain go away. When people take more expensive painkillers (even placebos) they expect a lot and as a result get a lot of pain relief, but when the price of these pills is discounted, expectations are lowered and so is their effectiveness. So we do get what we pay for, he says.

Another of Ariely’s experiments – albeit a small one – involved students keeping a diary of when they got a cold, which medication they used, and how they felt.

Again, those students who bought their medication at a discounted price rated it as less effective than those who bought it at a regular price.

And it’s not just painkillers. 

Ariely and marketing professors Bab Shiv and Ziv Carmon carried out another experiment, this time with an energy drink which was claimed to increase mental sharpness.

They found that people who drank the supposed brain-booster when it had been on discount performed worse on a subsequent puzzle-solving task than those who consumed the same drink when bought at its regular price.

The trio concluded that marketing can have a powerful impact on the way we perceive things.

“Our findings extend what is known about the association between price and quality in a significant way, showing that price affects not only perceived quality but also actual quality (i.e., the actual efficacy of the product),” they wrote in the Journal of Marketing Research.

So next time you’re shopping, compare the ingredients on the back of the packet to make sure you’re not just being taken in by some clever marketing. 


eZonomics team
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