“Free” is a powerful word.

“Free” is a powerful word.

As I have written before, we tend to equate quality with price: you get what you pay for. However, the idea of getting something for free can override any considerations of quality.

Most transactions have an up-side and a down-side. The up-side of buying something is that you receive a product that you desired. The down-side is that you have to give up some money to get it.

If something is free there is no down-side. You receive the product and you have not had to give up anything to get it. This is remarkably appealing even if what you might otherwise have given up was paltry, and almost worthless anyway.

Dan Ariely conducted an experiment where he and his colleagues were selling two different kinds of chocolate. A high-quality Lindt one for 15 cents and a lower-quality Hershey’s one for just 1 cent. 73% of people who bought a chocolate opted for the higher quality one. He then dropped the price of each by 1 cent. This made the favoured Lindt chocolate just 14 cents, but the Hershey’s Kiss was now free. (I should mention that the sale was being made at a till where people were already paying for other products, so inconvenience of having to dig their money out was not a factor.)

The number who opted for the Hershey’s Kiss (now it was free instead of the outrageous price of 1 cent) went up from 27% to 69%! Clearly a simple 1 cent drop in price cannot account for such a turnaround. After all, the Lindt chocolate was also 1 cent cheaper. It was the lure of getting something for free.


Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Expensive wine does taste better.

Expensive wine does taste better.

When wine lovers drink wine they believe to be expensive, blood oxygen increases in the area of the brain concerned with feeling pleasure. This was shown in research by Plassman et al in 2008. The wine actually tastes better to them just because they think it is expensive and therefore believe it is good quality.

How often have you heard the old adage, “You get what you pay for”? It is ingrained into us, as we grow up, that more expensive products are better quality.

Of course, you know that that is not always the case. I’m sure you can think of many instances when you bought something expensive that broke, or something cheap which went on and on and on. However, if you are trying to choose between two similar products, you are likely to assume that the more expensive one will be better.

It is generally when we do not have the expert knowledge required to assess quality properly that we fall back on the price to inform us. However, it is not always as clear cut that more expensive is perceived as better. Your state of mind can change that. For example, if you have just spent time tackling your struggling finances, then cheaper is more likely to be seen as good value. If you have just spent time trying to fix a broken item and are now buying a replacement, you are more likely to think of cheaper as lower quality.

All other things being equal though, we equate price with quality, even though this is often not the case. Take medicine, for example. This is an area where people will pay more for quality. People will pay far more for big name brands, assuming them to be of superior quality. As I write this Tesco sells packs of 16 Nurofen 200mg tablets for £1.90. They obviously sell enough that Nurofen continues to make a profit on them. However, a pack of 16 tablets of Tesco’s own brand of ibuprofen costs only £0.35!

There is no doubt that Nurofen’s big brand name has an impact, but many people assume that because Nurofen costs so much more it must be that much better. However, both Nurofen’s and Tesco’s tablets each have 200mg of the active ingredient. There is no good reason to believe that the Nurofen brand works better.

Actually, I should revise that. There is one very good reason Nurofen may work better and faster than a supermarket’s own cheap brand: your belief that it will.


Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

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