Is It Bad To Get Free Stuff?

Free stuff is a good thing, right? Well, it depends on the definition of free, and it depends on the stuff. Whoever said, “You can never have too much of a good thing,” was probably not talking about free stuff.

Photo courtesy of Vladislav Reshetnyak

Define Free.

We must first consider that nothing is ever really free. A restaurant that offers free lunch will either give the lunch away at their own expense or build the cost of the free lunch into some other revenue stream.

T-Shirt Cannons.

It is always entertaining to watch people at sporting events trample over one another for one of those free t-shirts they launch into the crowd. Many in the crowd do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that a free shirt is not worth getting trampled over. Those people will decidedly stay in their seats while the rest clamor for a free shirt that might not even be the right size.

But it’s FREE though!

“Free” can cloud a person’s judgement. While at MIT, Kristina Shampanier, Dan Ariely, and Nina Mazar did a study and published an article on the value of free products. Using chocolates, they found that people will sometimes ignore better options if a free one is presented.

Toblerone, maybe?

The researchers presented one group with a high-end chocolate that cost 14 cents and a low-end chocolate that cost only 1 cent. A majority of the people chose the high-end chocolate. Another group was presented with the same chocolates, but the prices were lowered by 1 cent. People now chose the low-end free chocolate over the one that cost 13 cents, even though the high-end chocolate was a much better quality.

No Such Thing.

People assume that free must be a good thing and are more likely to ignore potential consequences. Suppose a restaurant offers a free lunch. Again, the restaurant likely recoups the expenses related to that free lunch elsewhere. But suppose that free lunch only comes with purchase of a drink, and that the lunch actually tastes terrible. Suddenly, the cost of the free lunch does not seem so free. Taking time out of a busy day to purchase a drink and eat a terrible (but free) lunch is likely not as appealing as paying for a delicious and enjoyable lunch.

Decisions . . .

Expand this idea to education, healthcare, and housing. Consider that there is no such thing as free and then consider how people view free stuff. They will forgo things that might be better for them simply because the alternative is free. Ultimately, free interrupts the decision making process and can rob people of their autonomy.

Weigh the Cost.

“Free” does not always equal happiness and satisfaction, and this may be true for chocolates or for healthcare. While access to housing and healthcare have an impact on happiness and lifespan, and there are short-term benefits to providing these things, there are intrinsic psychological benefits to working for these things as well. Free might lead to disappointment and dependency, or it might lead to a free shirt. It is always important to weigh the cost of free.