“The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.”

– Coco Chanel

Recently my wife Diane discovered that if you go to Kellogg’s website and download a receipt proving that you bought a Kellogg’s cereal, they will send you a children’s book free.

She received a copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and then donated it to the mental health center’s bookstore. This Sunday we arranged to get a second copy. It’s a great program, but I am getting tired of eating cornflakes.

Since it’s October, The Harvest Homecoming Festival is coming up shortly. In the past Diane and I have worked the mental health center booth and handed out freebies such as pens, pencils, rulers, and one year the best helium-filled balloons in the whole festival. This creates a lot of goodwill, but many booths have decided to limit access to premiums, so that they can control the number of items people take.

Such free items make up part of many companies’ marketing strategies. Pharmaceutical representatives, for example, are known for bringing in pens advertising new medications, clocks, hand sanitizer, lip balm, and even lunch for medical staff. I suppose people are supposed to think, “If they can make a great pen like this, their medications must be awfully good.”

Due to the pandemic, many companies, like where I work, no longer hold company picnics or holiday parties involving large groups. Instead, they use online services such as Snappy Gifts, which provide a system to offer workers gifts. Employees receive an email, containing a link they follow to an online gift catalog. They can select an item, which is shipped to their homes in a matter of days.

Humans are hardwired to be attracted to anything that’s free. From an evolutionary perspective, we need “stuff,” like food, shelter, clothing, tools, etc. to increase our survival chances. We are opportunistic creatures and items that are free are extremely appealing. The pleasure we experience when getting a bargain is only magnified when the item is free.

Fullbright scholar Caitlin Schiller from Blinkist says, “The word free, at first sight, makes people go out of their way to lug home useless keychains and pens from conferences; it makes them buy pants that are too tight, just so they can get a second pair at no cost. It makes them choose to eat bland food instead of a tastier alternative.”

In his book “Predictably Irrational”, Duke University psychologist Dan Ariely describes what happens when something is offered free. In one study participants were given the choice of purchasing a superior piece of chocolate for 15 cents apiece or less desirable chocolates for a penny apiece.

Nearly three-quarters of participants bought the premium chocolate. In the second part of this study, the price of the superior chocolate was reduced to 14 cents but the less desirable chocolates were offered free. In this scenario 69% of people chose the free chocolate.

Buying anything is a type of risk-taking. You are using up resources, but may not get what you want. Products often end up disappointing us. In such cases we have expended valuable assets, with nothing to show for it. In nature, most organisms cannot afford to take such losses very often since they threaten survival.

When an item is free, however, it lacks that risk and is thus perceived as having a higher value (nothing to lose). Free products have a built-in evolutionary attraction that is difficult to ignore. They are the proverbial “low hanging fruit” that requires little or no effort to harvest.

Automatically accepting free goods or services, however, is not always the best idea. From his research Dr. Ariely concluded that “the power of free can get us to make many foolish decisions.” To combat the psychological attraction of free products, Ariely suggested that the next time you face a decision regarding a “free offer,” you should imagine what decision you would make if the price was not free, but just very cheap (like a dollar). If you would change your mind if the item wasn’t completely free, this indicates that the decision was probably a poor one from the start.

Dr. Ariely and his MIT colleagues conducted another study showing how people are attracted by free items. They set up a candy stand at the student center. Some afternoons, they sold candies for one cent each. Other afternoons, they offered the same candies free. When candies were offered for one cent, 58 students stopped by, but when candies were free, 207 students stopped there.

People consistently overvalue free items. A Russian proverb says, “Vinegar that is free is sweeter than honey.” Simply put, free products make people happier and this happiness influences their decision-making. When they are forced to carefully analyze their judgements (muting the effects of happiness), the overvaluing of free items tends to fade.

There are, however, a few circumstances when the power of free doesn’t work. People may be suspicious of free items believing them to be inferior (that which is free must be of little value). In other situations a person may feel morally obligated to pay the full price for something. In 2 Samuel, King David is directed to build an altar and to make burnt offerings. The owner offers the altar site, as well as offerings to the king free.

David, however, says, “I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD with that which costs me nothing.” David realized that it would not truly be his sacrifice, if he didn’t pay anything.

Finally some folks refuse free items because they feel it would be demeaning and call into question their own status.

Terry L. Stawar lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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