The Power of Free

A group of researchers offered participants of a study a choice between purchasing a Hershey ’s Kiss chocolate for 1-cent ($0.01) or Lindt Lindor chocolate truffle for 15 cents ($0.15). The participants, recognizing this as a good deal since the price differential in a supermarket would be larger than 14 cents between the two options, overwhelmingly chose the latter.

Now here is where it gets interesting.

The researchers dropped the price of each product by a penny. Logically, the Lindt Lindor chocolate truffle should still be the preferred choice, since there is still just a 14 cent difference between the two products. If the participants originally thought the Lindt Lindor was worth the extra 14 cents, then they should still choose the truffle over the Kiss.

However, in the revised scenario, an overwhelming majority chose the Hershey Kiss.

Apparently, we just love the word “FREE”. It evokes unreasonably positive feelings in the brain. Just the sight of the word “free” releases large quantities of dopamine in our brain to make us feel happy, and we end up responding irrationally.


So how does this affect us in the real world? Consider two economically identical deals– one messaged as ‘buy 1 get 1 free’; the other messaged as a volume discount deal as ‘get 50% off if you buy two’. Which one are you more likely to respond to?

Here’s another example, from Dan Ariely:

Most of us would never purchase a low-quality, ill-fitting t-shirt at a store for $15. But when that same t-shirt is free, launched from a cannon at the ballpark, we’re willing to break bones and spill $12 beers to get our grubby hands on it. “The moment something involves ‘free,’ we get overly excited,” explains Ariely, “and we no longer think rationally.”

66 thoughts on “The Power of Free

  1. BOGO definitely sounds better than 50% off. I’d value the T-shirt shot into the crowd mostly because I’d “won” it rather than being free. My blog is free. I’m still waiting for the stats, likes, and follows to start pouring in. 😄

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  2. I agree that buy one— get one free sounds more glamorous than 50% off. The power of advertising and words make a difference. I once worked at a JC Penney as a stockboy making the price tags for the merchandise. One of the tricks was to have a huge mark-up on the retail price, so people thought they were getting a bargain when it dropped in half.

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  3. An interesting look at the psychology of “free”. It does not surprise me. But there is a reverse side to that coin. I once had a desk we wanted to get rid of. It was in decent shape and could be useful for someone in need. We placed it at the curb with a sign that said “FREE”. It sat there long enough that I had to mow the grass around it twice. Then I placed a sign on it that said “$15”. It was stolen that night. It also reminds me of a saying my father told me many times. “When you get something for free, you usually get exactly what you paid for.”

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    1. thanks for sharing that story, Brad. It makes sense. It reminds me of a story I heard about Bruce Springsteen. A neighbor of his had placed an old toilet in his own front yard, thinking either the sanitation workers would pick it up, or someone looking for a free toilet would pick it up. It sat there for a few days, with no takers. Bruce then approached his neighbor and told him he could put it in front of his (Bruce’s) house and that would take care of the problem. Within a couple of hours, the toilet was gone…

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  4. yes, free is a magic word, and yet brad’s point is an excellent one. what if you offered to work for free? would people take you seriously or think you as professional? it’s a balancing act, though in product merchandising, it sure works!

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  5. When I was growing up in poverty, I got signed up for the free lunch program at school. One day, while I was waiting in line with my empty tray, a cafeteria worker scolded me, and asked, “So you think there’s such a thing as a free lunch?” I said, “Yes,” and showed her my free lunch card. Much to her chagrin, I got my lunch for free.

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