Are You a FREE Thinker?

July 19, 2016

By: Paul O'Brien

Even if you ignore the now disproven (and non-existent) research by Yale Psychology department, it’s a fact that for many people, the word FREE is the most powerful word in the English language. Not convinced? Check out anything by US DM writing guru Herschell Gordon Lewis, and you’ll see things my way.

The trouble is, words don’t always have the effect we expect. For example, when I was young(ish), people didn’t go to discos. They went to bops. And at college, we had two bops a week.

Wednesday, our go-to bop bloke Nick the Bald would come in at around 7.30. Once he’d set up his lights and turntable, he’d carefully lay out his boxes of singles, packed full of U-Roy and I-Roy, the Rich Kids and the Adverts, and Jeff Beck and Hawkwind (ask your dad). Then he’d switch on his smoke machine and wait for the punters to come.

The trouble was, Wednesday’s bop was FREE!!!! And at that low, low price, only the desperately poor or the desperately lovelorn were prepared to show up.  Sometimes, Nick would wait for a very long time before the first people came. Even then, when he shouted ‘Everyone in the house say “Yeah!”’, only about a dozen voices would answer.

Saturday, though – Ah, Saturday, when we had our second bop of the week! That was a completely different kettle of fish. Because this one was very definitely not free.

Our go-to bop bloke Nick the Bald would come in at around 7.30. Once he’d set up his lights and turntable, he’d carefully lay out his boxes of singles, packed full of U-Roy and I-Roy, the Rich Kids and the Adverts, and Jeff Beck and Hawkwind (ask your dad). Then he’d switch on his smoke machine and wait for the punters to come.

And come they did, in droves. The hall was heaving. It was jumping. It was rammed. At £2.50 to get in, students reckoned it was great value – or, far more likely, they convinced themselves it was. With not a lot of money to play with as students, surely they wouldn’t have wasted it – would they?

 

So, should we ignore the value of the word FREE? Not necessarily. Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, quotes an interesting piece of research in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’. Offered a choice between a 15c Lindt choccie and a Hershey Kiss at a peppercorn price of a US penny, 73% chose the Lindt.

When the price dropped by one cent in both cases – which made the Kiss free – 69% chose the Kiss.

 

So what makes the difference?

Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ has an interesting insight on this point. In his analysis of game theory and risk adversity, he considers people’s propensity to make a particular choice. During the course of the decision-making process, they will balance loss, gain and risk. Here is where the key factor kicks in.

Our behaviour and choices are directed by the two types of thinking we use. System 1 thinking is automatic, unconscious, instinctive and implicit. We tend to weigh up facts in rapid parallel processes that are driven by emotions and associations (for example, ’Last time I ate a Lindt, did I like it?’).

System 2 on the other hand is thoughtful, conscious, rational, explicit, calculating and rule-based (‘if I pay nothing for a Kiss, what experience will I get in return?’). Clearly, when the price dropped to zero, there was no financial or emotional risk. The decision would only relate to whether the taste experience of the Kiss was worth paying nothing for.

Even more importantly, System 2 is hard going. As a result, we base most of our decisions on instinctive System 1 – and perhaps this is why the FREE offer doesn’t always work. If our previous experiences of a free bop have been negative (too few people, too much drink, terrible hangover) we won’t want to try again. If on the other hand, a free bop is where we met our last partner…

 

So if you want to get a special interaction going with your audience, it may not just be the words that will make a difference. It could be the words and the context – which might need a smidgen of research to work out. So get in touch with us and we’ll put our System 1 and System 2 thinking caps on.

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