Nov 10

In many past experiments we have shown that people are often overly excited about things that are FREE (see Predictably Irrational).  An interesting opportunity to further look at this behavior presented itself when a few weeks ago a nightclub in New York City promoted an event with “free tattoos,” and we just had to check it out to see if the offer would tempt people to get one…

A large open room in an old industrial building with three wooden picnic tables lined up end to end in the center of the room. The tattoo station was a small portable table, two folding chairs and a cheap floor lamp.  Our research assistant, with her clipboard, was by far the cleanest and most official looking person around.  And when she offered to help the tattoo artist by taking the names of the people in line, he was delighted. In the 5 hours she was there (from 9pm to 2am) a total of 76 people signed up for free tattoos.

Who are these people?

The line for free tattooed was composed of the same number of males and females. The age range was 18 (underage for the event) to 47, with an average of 26.  As they were deciding to stand in line for the free tattoo we asked the participants how drunk they were at that point, and the average level of reported drunkenness was surprisingly low at 2.64 on a scale from 1-11 (however, it was later discovered that a better question to ask may have been “How intoxicated, drunk or high do you feel right now?”).

What were they getting?

Overall, the tattoos people wanted were very creative. Some notables were the phrase “Holy Snacks” on the inside bottom lip; one 27-year-old male wanted a Nintendo controller tattooed onto his left ribs; there was a request for a penis tattoo, and a few people wanted some version of infinity in English or in Swahili (Umilele).  Another notable groups were the 4 individuals that did not know what they wanted, but knew that they wanted some free tattoo, and 5 individuals that did not know where they wanted it.

Was it the FREE?

When we asked the people in line for the free tattoos if they would get the tattoo if it were not free, 68% said they would not.  They were only getting it because it was free.   We also asked the participants if they knew that there were free tattoos being offered at the party.  The 90% that knew they would be giving away free tattoos were asked two follow-up questions.  First, when asked when they made their decision to get a tattoo that night before or after arriving at the party, 85% said they made their decision before arrival and 15% made the decision after arriving.  When further asked, on a scale of 0-100, how likely did they think they were to get a tattoo that night, people were on average 65% sure they would be getting a tattoo.

As the research assistant was collecting the data, another tattoo artist (not the one that work working that evening, but a competitor) stopped by to tell give us her opinion about the free tattoo practice. This petite brunette, with a medallion tattoo on her lower sternum, felt it was her responsibility to tell us in gory detail about all the unhygienic and potentially health hazardous practices she had witnessed throughout the evening. She talked about how a contaminated paper towel had been passed around and how an obvious necessity missing from the set-up was any sort of disinfectant. She said all these practices could cause these people to contract a blood disease like Hepatitis, HIV, etc. Whether her concerns were valid or not, it became clear to us that the real cost of tattoos are not their price, but the odds for infections and long-term illness.

You decide:

The results indicate that the power of “free” is surprisingly influential.  When we face a decision about a tattoo, one would hope that the long term permanency of the decision, coupled with the risks of getting different types of infections would cause people to pay little attention to price, and certainly not to be swayed one way or another by the power of free.  But sadly, the reality (at list in the nightclub scene in New York) suggests that the power of free can get us to make many foolish decisions.  So next time, when you are facing a decision about a “free” offer, my suggestion would be to imagine what you would do if the price was not free and instead it was very cheap (maybe $1) — and ask yourself if this would change your behavior.  And if you would make a different decision if free was not involved, maybe this is a good sigh that the decision was not that good to start with?