When someone takes a sugar pill, believing it is medicine and experiences results similar to a patient taking actual medicine, that is the placebo effect. A study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 299 No. 9, March 5, 2008) shows that the cost of the sugar pill may make a difference in the placebo effect.

The subjects of the study were given a light electric shock. The 82 subjects were then given a sugar pill and told it was pain medication. The subjects were given a brochure describing the pain medication. Half of the brochures stated that the “medication” cost $2.50 per pill, and the other half stated the pills were 10 cents each. When given a shock, 85% of those receiving the $2.50 pill said they felt less pain, compared to only 61% of those who received the 10 cent pill.

Dan Ariely, one of the authors of the study said that the placebo effect is “one of the most fascinating, least harnessed forces in the universe.” He went on to say, “How do we give people cheaper medication, or a generic, without them thinking it won’t work?”