Monday, October 20, 2008

You Get What You Pay For

The economy is on everyone's mind right now. The news is full of doom and gloom about the health of the stock market and banking industry. People are stressing about rising food prices, health care costs, home heating oil this winter, retirement funds, layoffs, college loans, buying a car, mortgages and the list goes on and on. Everyone I know is looking for ways to be a good steward, invest and spend wisely and save money wherever possible.

With that in mind, I read a very interesting email from Health Sciences Institute today. It told about a study performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for its research on the placebo effect. You may be familiar with the placebo effect. During World War II, Dr. Henry Beecher used saline injections on injured soldiers because morphine was in such short supply. The soldiers' pain was relieved simply because they believed the "medicine" they were given would do so. Dr. Beecher coined the expression "placebo effect." His continued research revealed that up to 35% of response to any medical treatment could be attributed to the patient's belief about it. This placebo effect has been proven to be an actual, measurable change in brain chemistry.

These researchers at MIT did a very interesting study. They took 80 subjects and gave them a mild electrical shock on their wrists. Each of those subjects were then given what they were told was a painkilling drug. With that drug (which was a placebo - it had absolutely no active ingredients of any kind) half were given a brochure describing the "drug" as newly approved by the FDA and costing $2.50 per dose. The other half were told their drug cost 10 cents per dose.

Each subject was then given the electrical shock again. Here's the really interesting part: of those subjects whose brochure described the "drug" as costing $2.50 per dose, 85% said their pain from the second electrical shock was reduced. Of the other half who were told their drug cost 10 cents a dose - only 60% said they experienced less pain.

The researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that these results explain why patients who switch from brand-name drugs to generic drugs with exactly the same active ingredients often report that the generic is less effective. The conclusion was that doctors should de-emphasize the fact that a generic drug is less expensive and plant the idea in the patient's mind that the drug is just as good as the brand-name!

In my opinion this is just one more indication of how status conscious our society has become. It has to be the biggest, best, most expensive, impressive brand name - whether we can afford it or not!! Maybe that's why many are finding themselves in a precarious financial situation right now? Who are we trying to impress? What ever happened to integrity, wisdom and common sense? Why do we care what anyone else thinks about the size of our home, our car or our clothes? They aren't making the payments on those things, we are! I think the problem is that we only equate value with price. Just because something is more expensive doesn't necessarily mean it is of a better quality.

In some instances, the higher priced product is superior. I will not deny that. For instance, in purchasing vitamins, where the ingredients come from and how they are processed matters greatly and many times the superior product is more expensive. However, when we compare labels and all the ingredients are exactly the same, but one is a "name brand" and the other is not, choosing the name brand simply because of the name is in itself worthy of the Ig Nobel Prize. By the way, that really is an award, the Ig stands for ignoble (which means of low character or aims) and is awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research.

To me it comes down to motive. If you truly feel it is a superior product and you have done research, used all the information at your disposal, and you can afford it, then go for it. If, however, as is the case much more often, you are either too lazy to do the research and just "trust" the name brand is better or having others see that you have the name brand just makes you feel better about yourself - I'd suggest you examine your motives. Are you looking for the best value or trying to make yourself feel better by impressing others?

1 comment:

I'm Chris ... said...

Your post makes a great deal of sense. I also think that, besides the fact that we are a largely status-minded society, we are largely conditioned on prior experiences.

For example, children may have grown up only being exposed to one brand of a particular product. For argument's sake, let's say Tylenol. If a child was raised always taking Tylenol for whatever reason, I would think it has been conditioned in their brain that is the only pill they should take when they're feeling ill. The same thing goes for cigarettes. They all kill you, but people swear by smoking certain brands--and it doesn't even have to always do with status. It could be habit, too.

I think both habits and status-mindfulness (I don't know if that's even a word) are hard to break.