Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Why FREE is never really ‘free’

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were waiting for a friend in the SU atrium when we were approached by a young man from KPMG* (let’s call him Joe). He asked us both whether we would like to try some FREE chewable coffee. Being intrigued by the prospect, we both obliged and accepted his offer. Joe then followed up with "now, I’m really here to ask you whether you would like to sign up to an event we are holding next month in London. There will be some really fun activities there for you to do and you look like fun people, so what do you say?”. Flattery normally does work (Cialdini, 2007). We like individuals who praise us. However, in this case, I knew exactly what Joe was trying to do. Such flattery does not work when we are sure that the flatterer is trying to manipulate us (Cialdini, 2007).

I was also sure that Joe was trying to set the reciprocity effect in motion. The reciprocity effect is demonstrated by Regan (1971). In Regan's experiment, participants who received a favour (a soft drink) from a confederate bought significantly more raffle tickets from the confederate later. When individuals feel indebted to the requester, they are more likely to comply with their later requests (Cialdini, 2007). Joe knew that giving us some ‘free’ chewable coffee would make us more likely to sign up to his event. We feel obliged to repay whatever people have given us (Cialdini, 2007). This tool of persuasion is so powerful that we usually end up repaying a small favour (a tiny pack of chewable coffee) with a much larger favour (a lot of time, and potentially money, spent on a trip to London). 

In this anxious state of uncertainty, both me and my boyfriend looked at each other, searching for answers of what to do. We were each other’s social proof. When individuals are uncertain of how to respond to a situation, they look to those around them for answers and behave in accordance with them as they believe that what others are doing must be correct (Cialdini, 2007; Pratkanis, 2007).

Luckily, I knew exactly what Joe was trying to. Therefore, I politely declined to sign up to his event, as did my boyfriend, following my lead. Joe smiled and went on his way, in search of another target. 

This anecdote outlines why we should be skeptical when we are offered something completely FREE. Usually, something that is FREE is never really ‘free’.

FREE → obligation  repayment. In other words... FREE  payment.

*For those of you who don't know, KPMG is one of the 'big four' professional service firms.


Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.

Regan, D.T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of experimental social psychology, 7, 627-639.

Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. New York: Psychology Press.

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