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11 May 2009

The Power of Free

Although I often mock the free "news"papers, which by about 8 a.m. can be found covering every free surface on every tube train and commuter train about three papers high, they do serve a purpose: they keep me entertained during my seven-minute journey from chez moi to King's Cross each morning and for the first few minutes of my train ride back from Nowheresville in the evening--those few minutes where, after a hard day's work and a 15-20 minute jog/run to the station (depending how late I left it), my brain can disengage before I get settled into the latest book. Also, I do enjoy Time Out's regular "which of our articles will be plagiarised by the free papers this week?" sweepstakes.

I would never read these papers if they weren't free. I don't even buy the Guardian most weekdays and I enjoy reading that (and not just because I don't have time or because I already have something to read). The Evening Standard falls somewhere between the Grauniad and the free papers: I wouldn't buy it but I might take a copy if it were offered for free. 

Often, there are special offers at the station where the Standard is offered for 10p if you have an Oyster Card. 10p is pretty cheap but I've never been tempted to buy one. Today, however, they were giving them away and, indeed, I took one, which I will probably leaf through while watching The Tudors before binning. There isn't a lot of difference between 10p and 0p--10p in fact--but the difference between 10p and 0p is psychologically a lot greater than the difference between 20p and 10p; I'm sure I would be no more likely to buy the Standard for 20p than for 10p, for instance. Dan Ariely goes into this in several studies he reports in great detail in his book, Predictably Irrational; indeed, in these studies, the difference between even 1p and 0p is shown to be perceived to be a lot greater than between 2p and 1p.

Of course, it's not just that I don't think the Standard is worth 10p. There is also the issue of getting out my wallet, slowing down and getting out of that focused, power-walking commuter mode and joining a queue, maybe even waiting a few minutes to be served (not that there is ever a queue of people anxious to buy the Standard). If I really wanted to have something to read, if there was no queue and if I happened to have the right change in my pocket, I could imagine buying a copy of the Standard but even then, unless it was less than, say, 50p, I would probably buy the Grauniad instead because I would prefer to read the latter even if it is more expensive. If the Standard was giving away a free gift I valued more than the price of the paper, I might also buy it. 

Those are probably the only scenarios, though, where I could be persuaded to buy something that isn't much more useful to me than a paper I can pick up for free and without having to queue (there is also the fact that my tube journey is only seven minutes, plus an average of one or two minutes waiting for the tube to arrive, which isn't long enough to read the Standard but is long enough to flip through the free papers).

Of course, if I wanted to be more rational, I could decide in advance how much I value the Standard given various circumstances and buy it whenever the benefits I get from buying it exceed the costs. However, at 7.45 on weekday mornings, having had only one coffee, it's about all I can do to get myself to the tube and on the train; rationality isn't a priority.


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