It’s Free? I’ll Take Two!

14 Apr
Coffee cup icon

Image: Wikipedia

I like getting free things, which isn’t particularly shocking. Paying $0 for something is always better than having to take hard-earned cash out of my wallet. So when I heard about a free coffee promotion sponsored by a local shop, I made my merry way to the store’s front doors. I walk by this coffee shop on a pretty regular basis, and I’ve heard great things about its drinks. Yet, I’d never been inside before. A little weird, right?  I love coffee, the shop is rumored to have great coffee, and it’s on my way to work. All signs point to me becoming a frequent customer. But I’d never even tried it, for one simple reason: price.

You see, as much as I love coffee, I love free more. And my office has complimentary espresso. So even though I don’t like espresso very much, I choose to drink it, because its impact on my weekly budget is a beautiful $0. I sacrifice what I really want for the sake of something that costs me less. Curious, right? But in fact, this is a rather studied phenomenon. I recently read some work by Dan Ariely about the power of free. Ariely is a behavioral economist who has written fantastic books on irrational behavior. And his studies show, time and time again, that we are all to willing to abandon preferences if something is offered to us for free. You may want the chocolate cake, but if it costs $4 a slice and the vanilla cake is free… you’re likely to take the free one. And what’s more, we often forget to evaluate the true quality of something that’s free. So when a company offers you a free t-shirt, you’re not very likely to debate whether the shirt is attractive or worth your attention- you grab it and head on your way.

So back to this coffee promotion, shall we? I went to the shop, asked for the promotional coffee, and chatted a bit with the woman at the cash register. But then: guilt set in! The shop was just so pretty. And its coffee machines were so sleek and polished. And its staff was so nice. And its menu was so upscale. And… and… and…


I’d feel a little guilty taking a free coffee from this guy Photo credit: smee.bruce)

I realized I had to buy something. I walked in there expecting to grab my free java and hit the road, but the context of where I got the free coffee changed my expected behavior. I felt bad doing a grab-and-run, and felt like it was only fair to buy something to make up for my free drink. This certainly wouldn’t have happened in a different context. Had the free coffee been from 7-11, for example, I would have definitely done a grab-and-run. But since this was a fancier and more unique shop with a friendly staff, I felt like I had to support their business. It was a different sort of experience, and for some reason it just felt wrong to “abuse” it. Also, I was the only one around who asked for the promotion. Had there been flocks of people waiting for their free coffee, I probably would have felt less obligated to buy something. But since I was the only one around getting the free cup, it felt a bit awkward and, in fact, petty. So in the end, I spent more than $0-and actually, I spent more than the price of a cup of coffee, too. The breakfast I bought was wonderful, thankfully. But it got me chuckling about my turnaround in behavior. The plan: benefit from free. The result: spend money I hadn’t planned on spending. Naturally, this is what stores hope for when they offer free products- they hope you end up buying other things that make up for the cost of what they gave you for free. And I’m sure my (delicious) $4 biscuit did just that.

Have you ever taken something you really don’t need, just because it’s free? What would you have done in my situation- would you have done a grab-and-run? Or would you have acted like I did?

Interested in hearing more about the behavioral economics of a cup of coffee? Check out  The Power of Suggestion


One Response to “It’s Free? I’ll Take Two!”


  1. For What It’s Worth | Culture Cookies - May 1, 2013

    […] have an iPhone, so I can’t download it. If you DO have an iPhone, give it a shot! After all, it’s free- so your only opportunity cost here is the time you might spend playing with […]


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