The magic of free

Back in the day when I was living in Fitzroy I used to go running through the Carlton Gardens. (The only running I do these days is … nope, actually don’t run at all anymore).  

On one particular run I came across a fun run (an oxymoron if ever there was one) in progress. There was a line of people queuing up to get their free T-shirts. My eyes lit up. I surreptitiously joined the queue and before I knew it I was the proud owner of a new T-shirt.  

Then I realised I’d been caught in the spell of free. I needed another crappy T-shirt promoting a fun run I didn’t even do to get jammed in my T-shirt drawer like I needed a hole in the head. But because it was free, I was there. So when no one was looking I sheepishly snuck it back into the box under the table, and went on my way.  

There’s some cool science around this too.  

My favourite example is an experiment Dan Ariely described in his book Predictably Irrational. They set up a table selling chocolates – “one chocolate per customer” – and offered an exquisite Lindt Swiss chocolate for 15 cents and a much more average American Hershey’s Kiss for one cent. Not surprisingly, 73% of people paid a little bit extra for the quality chocolate. 

The interesting thing happened when they reduced the cost of both by that one cent – the Lindt was now 14c, and the Kiss was free. Suddenly 69% of people chose the free option, and only 31% went for the quality chocolate. The magic of free had kicked in. 

Chris Anderson (of fame, not to be confused by TED curator of the same name) wrote an entire book about this phenomenon – Free: The future of a radical price. He argues that anything “made of ideas” is getting cheaper and cheaper thanks to the digital revolution, and explores different “freemium” business models.  

(As an aside Malcolm Gladwell gives a nice critique of the book here… ironically in the New Yorker online, where you get to read three articles for free before you have to subscribe).  

There is a bit of magic about free. That “radical price point” does strange things to our brain.  

So what?” I hear you ask.  

Two things. Be very conscious whenever you’re faced with something for free. When you catch yourself queuing up for a T-shirt you don’t want or need. Because of course its not actually free. It might not cost money, but it will definitely cost something (time, energy, headspace, physical space etc).  

And secondly, make sure you are strategically giving some stuff away for free as part of your practice.  

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