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Why are we so willing to queue up for free things that are already cheap to begin with?

We hate standing in lines. A litany of apps have cropped up to help us skirt the waiting game. And yet, sometimes, we queue up in snaking, slow-moving huddles in order to score freebies. It doesn’t really make sense. Why are we willing to shuffle in place and watch the clock tick as long as the result is something we don’t have to be pay for?

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Take, for instance, National Donut Day. (Today,
June 5.) The quirky festivity was allegedly initiated by the Salvation Army in the late 1930s to honor the women who ferried the deep-fried pastries to U.S. soldiers on French battlefields during WWI. These days, the holiday—and, like The Atlantic’s Megan Garber, I use that term loosely—is an excuse for both mom-and-pop shops and large national chains to peddle free treats.

And it’s just one of many similar free-for-alls that happen once a year. Ben & Jerry’s scoops free cones; IHOP slings gratis short stacks. People go a little nuts. Last spring, Eater reported,

Right now, hundreds of New Yorkers are participating in the time-honored ritual of waiting for hours in the cold to eat free IHOP pancakes.

Manhattan’s 14th Street IHOP location had a line stretching past at least nine storefronts. (It was dutifully annotated by a local blogger and a swarm of snarky commenters, who sneered, “What kind of moron to do you have to be to stand on line for pancakes?”)

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Though the phrasing is harsh, the sentiment is valid: When flapjacks are just a few bucks and no-frills donuts cost $1.25, tops, why would you wait in a long line to score a free one? I decided to find out. First stop: a local outpost of a national donut chain.

Eric Freeman, a 28-year-old visiting Brooklyn from Minneapolis, made the trip to the donut shop today expressly to cash in, as it were, on the giveaway. He stopped by yesterday for a coffee, saw a sign advertising the promotion, and made a mental note to return to claim a jelly donut. “There’s extra satisfaction knowing you don’t have to dole out anything,” he said. “It’s like it comes to you.”  

The thing is, you are doling something out: Your time—and sometimes, lots of it. That has a value that is likely to exceed the financial benefit you’re gaining by not paying for a given good. The estimated wait in the IHOP line topped out at nearly two hours. (That’s enough time to buy lots of boxes of pancake mix, head back home, and whip up enough pancakes to feed a small army.)

Plus, some of the “free” things are actually only free with purchase, meaning that you end up shelling out some money, anyway. (At Dunkin Donuts, for instance, the donut is only free if you fork over money for a beverage.)

So why do we do it? Are we simply a nation of pancake, ice cream, and donut fanatics who will do anything for a fix? (Yes.) But it’s also more complicated than that.

It turns out that, when faced with numerous choices, we gravitate towards the free one, regardless of its economic value. In Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Duke professor Dan Ariely offers an idea from the perspective of behavioral economics. He writes, “We often pay too much when we pay nothing.” He continues:

Most transactions have an upside and a downside, but when something is FREE! we forget the downside. FREE! gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is.

In a paper written at MIT, he explained that we tend to overvalue free goods, noting:

People appear to act as if zero pricing of a good not only decreases its cost but also adds to its benefits.

His study of 398 MIT students measured people’s reaction (and overreaction) to two different products: Hershey’s candies and Lindt truffles. Under normal circumstances, the Hershey’s products are already significantly cheaper than Lindt products—and the latter also have an air of exclusivity or cachet, too. By all measures, the Lindt item has a higher value. Yet, when asked to choose between a free Hershey’s product or a dramatically discounted Lindt candy, the vast majority of students opted for the item that was free, even if it wasn’t objectively the best deal.

That’s why, today, even a mediocre, oily cruller—so long as it’s free—might seem to be the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten.

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