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Are natural drugs better? Grand Valley faculty member part of research showing consumers swayed by that notion

  • Amanda Dillard, associate professor of psychology

Posted on August 13, 2019

When faced with a decision about choosing a medication, consumers have a strong tendency to gravitate toward a product that is labeled "natural," a research team that included a Grand Valley faculty member recently concluded.

The findings illustrate both the perceived benefits of natural products in today's climate and the role that emotion often plays when making health decisions, said Amanda Dillard, associate professor of psychology.

Dillard and her colleagues recently published their report in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass and provided a piece for the health news website STAT that gave an overview of the research. One of the field studies for the research was conducted at Grand Valley, Dillard said.

For Dillard, whose work in psychology centers on how emotion and risk perception affect people's health behavior, the findings are consistent with what she has seen in her scholarship.

"People rely on their emotions more than their analytical side when making decisions, particularly regarding their health, which can lead to unwise decisions," Dillard said. "How do you make it so emotions can be reduced?"

Researchers conducted five studies involving 1,125 people, according to a news release. The studies found that people significantly preferred using plant-based drugs over synthetic drugs and that the term "natural" had a much more favorable perception than the term "synthetic."

Products ranging from food to beauty products to medications are often labeled as natural, Dillard noted. The researchers said the problem with automatically assuming that such products are safer or more effective is that some natural substances are harmful -- arsenic is an extreme example -- and some synthetic drugs, such as those used to treat cancer, are helpful.

When researchers educated people about the built-in positivity bias toward natural products, the preference toward natural drugs reduced, Dillard said. That outcome shows the benefit of education, Dillard said, even as experts recognize human tendencies to fall back on emotion. 

"Ultimately, the goal is to help people make the best decisions for themselves and to have that decision based on careful thought," Dillard said.