Now another study, published in the March 5 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Paper, Press Release), has shown that a similar thing happens with the placebo effect. Now, this is interesting because, to the extent that the 'miracle cures' of the god botherers have any basis in reality, they can be explained by the placebo effect.
It's already known that you can up the power of a placebo by increasing the intensity of the ritual surrounding it. Ben Goldacre explains:
We know from research that four placebo sugar pills a day are more effective than two for eradicating gastric ulcers (and that’s not subjective, you measure ulcers by putting a camera into your stomach); we know that salt water injections are a more effective treatment for pain than sugar pills, not because salt water injections are medically active, but because injections are a more dramatic intervention; we know that green sugar pills are a more effective anxiety treatment than red ones, not because of any biomechanical effect of the dyes, but because of the cultural meanings of the colours green and red. We even know that packaging can be beneficial.In the new study, the willing subjects were given mild electric shocks, and also what they were told was a pain killer (in reality a sugar pill, of course). But there was a twist:
Half the participants were given a brochure describing the pill as a newly-approved pain-killer which cost $2.50 per dose, and half were given a brochure describing it as marked down to 10 cents, without saying why.The result? 85% of those given the 'expensive' sugar pill got pain relief. Remarkably, so did 61% of those given the cheap pill!
So the moral for purveyors of miracle cures (shaman, Catholics and evangelicals alike): charge as much as the suckers will pay. They will thank you for it!
Plassmann, H., O'Doherty, J., Shiv, B., Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(3), 1050-1054. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0706929105
Waber, R., Shiv, B., Carmon, Z., Ariely, D. (2008). Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy. JAMA, 299, 1016-1017.