Is “free” Devalued by Consumers?

How much do people appreciate handouts? Personally, I find myself getting very skeptical when something that I consider to be of great value is offered to me for free. But in terms of how much the consumer of a product appreciates the product when it is handed to them rather than them needing to pay for it.

There could be many reasons for the devaluation of free entertainment. We live in a world where we are told that, if we want something, we have to earn it. When the opportunity presents itself that we may be able to obtain something while having to give nothing in return we may become skeptical or we may come to appreciate it less.
This is the phenomenon that Washington Post columnist, Gene Weingarten, put to the test when he asked renowned violinist and conducted Joshua Bell to play his violin in the D.C. Metro station.


Bell, who had recently performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for a considerable amount of money, put on a dirty baseball cap and dressed as a busker, and played his 300 year old Straivarius violin for 45 minutes. What the cameras caught during his performance was that, of the 1,097 people who passed by during the time he was playing, only seven people stopped to listen to him, and only one person recognized him. In total, he collected $32.17 from 27 people, which excludes $20 he was given by the one who recognized him.

Why is it, though, that people did not stop to listen? It could have been a handful of reasons. One could be that these people had places to go whereas the ones who went to his show were there specifically to see him. They could have not noticed them in such a crowded place. Or, of course, it could have been that it was a free performance so people did not expect much. Having been taught that the more expensive an experience is, the more valuable it is, many of these people may have thought that this random man on the side of the street was simply not worth their time. Nobody was asking for their money so they may have thought “what value is the performance?” If they shouldn’t have to pay for it, it couldn’t possibly be worth their time.


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