Saturday June 14 2008
Like anyone with any faith in humankind, you rail against the professionalisation of commonsense: because however much the seedier targets of this column might enjoy spending their customers’ money, baubles are impermanent. We’re not interested in consumer issues. The greater crime, by far, is that quacks and miracle cure merchants disempower us; and, moreover, that we love it when they do.
A paper currently in press for the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes addresses this issue explicitly. Participants were given a quiz on American history, with the opportunity to win cash rewards for correct answers (since we’re all simple experimental animals deep down), and the option to get advice for each question. The ‘advice’ was simply another student’s answers, perfectly likely to be wrong, and a reasonable model for self-appointed experts: it was from no great authority, and the experimenters were quite clear about this.
The participants were either offered the advice for free, or they were offered the opportunity to buy it. They were offered either option at various times, and it was made absolutely clear that the advice was of exactly the same quality, whether it was free or not. Participants were significantly more likely to follow advice they had paid for – and change their answers in line with it – compared with advice they received for free. We are suckers.
In fact, it’s already been a very good year for paying for things which should come free.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March subjected 82 healthy subjects to painful electric shocks, offering them pain relief in the form of a pill which was described as being similar to the opiate codeine, but with a faster onset, in a lengthy and authoritative leaflet. In fact it was just a placebo, a pill with no medicine, a sugar pill, like a homeopathy pill. The pain relief was significantly stronger when subjects were told the tablet cost $2.50 than when they were told it cost 10c.
Even better is a paper published in January in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Volunteers tasted and rated five wines, each individually priced, although in fact there were only three different wines, and two were tasted twice: once labelled at $90 a bottle, and once at $10 a bottle. The results were very clear: cheap wine really does taste better simply because we are told it’s expensive.
More than that, when participants tasted the ‘more expensive’ wine, brain scans showed increased activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex and its surrounding area, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, in the frontal lobes. I’m pretty sceptical about the merits of this kind of brain imaging research, but I will indulge you by mentioning that the orbitofrontal cortex has previously been activated in studies looking at ratings of pleasantness of music and smells.
All the best experimental results from science make you question your prejudices, beliefs and values, reorganise your thoughts, and bin a few models. However disappointing you find their results, these studies are interesting because they suggest that there’s no telling us, and that being ripped off can, in some respects, be good for you, improving your enjoyment, and improving your pain relief: in their own way, they cast some doubt on the whiny sceptic’s moral framework of exploiters and victims. I think you’ll find (and this is very much an all purpose t-shirt slogan I’m offering you here): I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy Waber et al.
JAMA.2008; 299: 1016-1017
Do we listen to advice just because we paid for it? The impact of advice cost on its use. Francesca Ginoa, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (In Press).
Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Hilke Plassmann, John O’Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel. 2008 105(3) 1050-1054.