The Irrational Allure of Free Stuff

How irrational is our love of Free Stuff? Dan Ariely runs a thought experiment:

Consider how long you would be willing to stand in line for a free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone. Let’s assume that your answer is 20 minutes and that the cost of a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone is $1.45. Now answer this: would you be willing to stand in line for 20 minutes for $1.45 in cash? No way.

On the other hand, here’s a thought experiment of my own:

Ben & Jerry’s runs a big promotional campaign announcing that it’s giving out free ice-cream cones between the hours of 1pm and 6pm on Wednesday. Simultaneously, Dan Ariely runs an identically-sized promotional campaign announcing that he’ll be giving out $1.45 in cash for free during the same hours. Who will get the longer lines: Ben & Jerry’s, or Ariely?

The answer probably depends on what city they’re in. But my guess is that given the choice, people will end up choosing the cash over the ice-cream cone. Certainly in February. I think it all comes down to the framing device: would you do something – stand in line for 20 minutes – for payment of $1.45 in cash? No. But would you stand in line for 20 minutes in order to get free money? Well, if you put it that way…

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