Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Free Stuff

I hate waiting in lines. As such, I've never been that excited by product giveaways like Ben and Jerry's free cone day. I learned my econ 101 well. I firmly internalized that the cone Ben and Jerry are giving away is not free. Waiting in line costs me time (and more), and, for me, that cost is greater than the value of the cone. Many other people make different choices. They love free stuff. One person I know recently described the great joy she takes from a box full of free t-shirts she has that she has collected and never worn (typically because they don't even fit her).

Back in July, Tony V. highlighed a particularly crazy situation that erupted when Allstate gave away free gas in Milwaukee. He then further conjectured:
If I announced that I was doing the same thing, but instead of giving out gas, was going to give $50 to each car that came, do you think there would be more, fewer, or the same number of people willing to wait more than 6 hours overnight (and sleep in their car)? I think there'd be fewer.

A new paper by Kristina Shampan’er and Dan Ariely suggests he may be correct. People seem to get an extra benefit from free stuff:

When faced with a choice of selecting one of several available products (or possibly buying nothing), a standard theoretical perspective suggests that the option with the highest benefitcost difference will be chosen. This analysis applies to all prices including the price of zero. In contrast, we propose that decisions about free products are different than simply subtracting costs from benefits, and that in fact the benefits associated with free products are perceived to be higher. We test this idea by contrasting the demands for two products (types of chocolate) across conditions that maintain the cost-benefit difference for the goods, but vary on whether the price of the cheaper good in the set is priced at a low positive price or at zero. Contrary to a standard cost -benefit perspective, the results show that, in the zero-price condition, the proportion of participants choosing the less attractive chocolate dramatically increases, while the proportion of participants choosing the more attractive chocolate dramatically decreases. Thus, individuals seem to act as if pricing a good as free not only decreases its cost, but also adds to its benefits. After documenting this basic effect, we propose and test several possible psychological antecedents of the effect: Social norms, Mapping difficulty, and Affect. The results suggest Affect as the most likely source of the effect.

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