The Psychology of Free

Posted on September 17, 2007 by Eric 
Filed Under Psychology, Reflection

Free Stuff!  Oh man, I gotta get some of that free stuff!!!Recently, Golbguru at Money, Matter, and More Musings talked about hoarding free “stuff”. He discussed how it wasn’t really frugal to hoard free things like ketchup and low-end toiletries from a hotel.

I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of hoarding free stuff. Specifically hotel shampoos and soaps. Not out of frugality. Not out of need. It was really because, as the person in Golbguru’s story said, I felt I had paid for them, so I better take them. It makes no sense. But I did it anyhow.

We went to dinner with some friends over the weekend. A nice cheap dinner with some frugal friends of ours where we could just socialize, talk, and share stories. I brought up the stories about the ketchup and free toiletries. I admitted my hoarding (which is really in the past – I can’t get any more until we use some, which we will). Then my friend brought up a point I hadn’t considered:

You know, if they charged you a penny for those toiletries, I bet you wouldn’t take them.

Immediately, I knew he was right. A penny. A single stinking penny. I’m sure I have hundreds of pennies around the house. It wouldn’t be a burden in the least. In fact, that stuff is probably worth more than a penny. But I wouldn’t have spent a penny on them.

(Note : If you’ve had this habit of hoarding these things, consider donating them to a local women’s or homeless shelter. They can usually make use of them even if you can’t.)

Why would something so insignificant as a penny stop me from taking what I would have gladly taken for free?

Could it be that something becomes more desirable solely because it’s free, and not because it has any real intrinsic value? Removing free from the equation, you can make a real judgment on the value. Very simple concept, but not something I had given much thought to before.

What’s the “real” value of something I’m getting for free? Do we value it less because it’s free, yet still want it based on the fact that we don’t have to pay for it? Do things that are free lose the value they might have had if we had actually paid for them? Is this free item valuable enough to me that I would be willing to pay for it? This conversation kind of made it click for me.

I wondered if the same could go for fast food restaurants. I haven’t hoarded ketchup (it’s OK, but not my favorite condiment), but I always take too much hot sauce from Taco Bell. I have a drawer full. If I go back, I’ll just get more, regardless of how much I have at home.

When the sauces are free, I tend to take too many. More than I would ever use. But what if they weren’t free? By charging any amount of money, I’m forced to make a decision. Is the sauce worth purchasing? I might be willing to pay a small amount for just the sauce I will use. But if they gave a small amount for free (say 5 packets) and charged me a fee for another 5 packets, I would really have to think about it. Even if it was just a tiny bit of money to get more, I would be more likely to limit what I took just because I was forced to make a decision about how many I would actually use.

Our friend shared with us another story that I felt was relevant. She was volunteering and had to help folks who were down on their luck and needed help. If the people lived far enough away, her charity would provide them a bus ticket so they could have transportation. This would cost the charity $30 and would be given free to the client. These tickets were frequently lost. The charity instituted a new rule – all tickets would cost $1 to help offset the costs of replacement. Suddenly, people lost fewer tickets. Just the act of paying $1 changed how they viewed the ticket. They had invested in it now. The clients seemed to be more careful with them. Even though it was worth something before they spent $1 on it, it was somehow worth even more now.

This reminded me of the time I had 15 lollipops melt in my favorite travel bag. Traveling home from seeing my brother, Melissa and I stopped and had lunch at the airport. They had unlimited free lollipops. Jackpot! We stocked up! We’d eat these on the plane! Oh man, sour apple! Gotta have it! I think we both ate one, while the other 13 or so melted in the luggage which we had left in the hot garage. We never even thought about those lollipops. Those free lollipops cost us more in time and cleaning supplies than they were worth! I think if we had payed for them, we wouldn’t have taken as many, and we probably would have eaten what we had taken.

So what determines when something is worthwhile, and when it’s not?

I’ve got a new rule when it comes to free. Would I pay a penny for it? Would I pay a nickel for it? What’s my threshold for “free”? If I can’t answer honestly that I would consider paying a penny for it (or some other reasonable amount), then maybe it’s not worth it for me to take it. I will not take any more free “stuff”, just for the sake of taking it because it is free.

Image by frankh


7 Responses to “The Psychology of Free”

  1. Sunday Morning Link Love: Under the Weather Edition | I've Paid For This Twice Already... on September 23rd, 2007 7:06 am

    […] Penny Closer: The Psychology of Free. I love free stuff. I also find it hard to resist. I am getting better…. but I’m not […]

  2. DivaJean on September 25th, 2007 11:37 am

    Another interesting phenomenon about “free” is the unwillingness to take for free- to not want to be seen as needy.

    We had scads of left stuff from our annual garage sale this year- plus more that I wanted cleaned out. The Rescue Mission and local charities do not seem to want small stuff anymore- so donating for tax writeoff wasn’t gonna happen.

    We put it all out with big FREE signs, like in your picture. Some people would look and look- but not take anything. Finally, we had to leave for something and just left it all in the driveway. When we got home after dark- the stuff was all gone. Some people wanted the cover of night to take their free items.

  3. Eric on September 25th, 2007 5:32 pm

    DivaJean – that’s really interesting that people didn’t want any of your free items. It’s funny just how something being free can change someones perception of it. In your case, the items appeared to be devalued when they were free (at least until it was dark out). In other cases, items are taken in large quantities because they are free. Free can be a very strange thing.

  4. Chris on September 27th, 2007 4:09 pm

    I remember having a related discussion many moons ago with my mother about “free” food in the workplace. You know, when someone brings in food from home or when there’s food left over from a meeting and it gets put in break room? It seems like people go nuts. People are telling everyone the encounter about the food in the break room. And it’s gone in a flash. I’ve found myself eating this kind of food even when I’m not hungry, so I’d guess it’s the same for many others. She thought that the concept of free food taps into some kind of primal instinct, some kind of hoarding behaviour or fattening up behaviour that our remote ancestors must have engaged in when food was scarce and they stumbled upon a bunch of consumables.

  5. Eric on September 27th, 2007 4:27 pm

    Chris – Thank you for the comment! I know exactly what you are talking about with the free food at work. People will sometimes have meetings, order way too much food, and then put it in the break room and send an email to the building. Some folks will literally run into the breakroom to get some of the food. I know I always head in there to see what’s left too, even when I’m not hungry. It’s hard to pass up that free pizza sometimes.

    I think your mom probably has something there. I wonder how much of it might just be leftover instincts from times when we had to gorge when food was available.

  6. Ben Popken on October 1st, 2007 8:19 pm

    It’s very true. Similar concept, after you’re 21, the only liquor that tastes as good as what you had before you were of age is when you don’t have to pay for it. My stoic grandfather taught me this.

  7. Eric on October 2nd, 2007 4:16 pm

    Ben – Thanks for the comment! I haven’t heard that one before about alcohol, but it sure sounds right. It’s always better when someone else is paying…


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