How We Fall for “Free” — Even When It’s The Wrong Choice

treat or trick

The Halloween candy is here.

Melissa stopped by Costco and brought home the treats over the weekend. 

Three giant bags of KitKats, Reese’s, Rolos, Whoppers, and Heath Bars.

455 pieces of chocolaty goodness per bag. 

1,365 pieces total…

…tempting me…

…taunting me…

…every time I walk past them in the living room. 

Melissa’s words echo in my brain: “These are NOT for YOU. These are for the darling neighborhood children.”

“F-k the darling neighborhood children,” I think, as I begin to rip open one of the bags in a moment of sugar-crazed irrationality. 

But I catch myself, return the unopened bag to the table, and trudge to the kitchen to make myself a salad with kale and boneless, skinless chicken breast. 


Speaking of irrationality…
…we humans are full of it. 
And here’s a Halloween story to prove it…

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted an experiment on the darling children in his neighborhood. 

When they came to the door on Halloween, he placed three Hershey’s Kisses (0.16-ounces each) in their hand. 

Then he held out two Snickers bars – a small one (one-ounce) and a big one (two-ounce). 

Ariely offered a trade: Pay one Kiss for the small Snickers or pay two kisses for the large bar. 

All but one darling child paid two kisses for the big bar. 

A smart, rational choice. 

The darlings now had 2.16 ounces of chocolaty goodness (1 Kiss + 1 big Snickers), compared to 1.32 ounces (2 Kisses + 1 small Snickers). 

Then, Ariely changed the offer. 

He offered the small Snickers for free (no Kisses required), or the big Snickers for one kiss. 

Let’s do the math…

Three Kisses + a one-ounce Snickers = 1.48 ounces of chocolaty goodness. 

Two Kisses + a two-ounce Snickers = 2.32 ounces of chocolaty goodness. 

A no-brainer, right? Take the two Kisses and the big bar. 

But that’s not what the darlings did. 70% took the three Kisses and small bar even though that meant way less chocolate. 

That’s an irrational decision. 

Ariely’s take:

Free stuff entrances us humans.

We act irrationally when offered something for free. 

When both Snickers came for a price (one Kiss or two), the darlings did the math and chose wisely. 

When only the big bar came for a price, and the small bar was free, 70% ignored the math…

…and irrationality reigned. 

This happens all the time. 

So says Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational. (Ariely tells that Halloween story in Chapter 3 – The Cost of Zero Cost). 

We think of ourselves as rational beings. But we’re not — at least not always. 

The good news: Humans are PREDICTABLY irrational, Ariely says. 

Those who understand this (example: those who understand the power of “free” when crafting offers) have an edge. 

That’s why I read Predictably Irrational every few years. And that’s why Ted Prodromou and I chose the book for the Mastermind Book Club. 

More about the Mastermind Book Club

Every month, Ted Prodromou and I choose a book for club members to discuss. The club is free to join. Here’s a link to join.

You can read the book – but only IF YOU WANT TO.

In the MBC community, members will share short videos, blog posts, and other conversation-starters. 

You can comment and participate in any conversation you choose…

…or you can start your own post/conversation. 

On the fourth Thursday every month (10/27 this month), we gather online for a Book Club meeting.

The idea: 

✓ Share insights drawn from the book.

✓ Discuss how to apply those insights to improve your business.

✓ Celebrate success as you or other members implement 

✓ The key word above: IMPLEMENT.

Don't go away yet..

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Tom Ruwitch

Tom Ruwitch is the founder and CEO of Story Power Marketing. For more than 30 years, he has helped businesses grow by delivering powerful stories using a variety of different media.