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Study sees mental link between drug price, effectiveness

A higher-priced medication with a brand name might work better than a generic version--even if the pills are exactly the same--simply because the patient thinks the expensive prescription should work better, according to a recently published MIT study.

The study--conducted by researchers including graduate student Rebecca Waber and Dan Ariely, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT--involved 82 volunteers who were given identical placebos that were supposed to be a new pain medication. But the volunteers were told the pills had different costs, with some getting pills supposedly costing 10 cents, and some getting $2.50 pills.

Results of the study, which appeared in the March 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that those who were told the pill cost more reported feeling less pain from a series of electrical shocks to the wrist. Those told the pill only cost 10 cents reported feeling more pain on average.

The results may impact how generic medication and brand-name medication are marketed, packaged and distributed, and help explain "the popularity of high-cost medical therapies over inexpensive, widely available alternatives," according to the study.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 19, 2008 (download PDF).

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