The Economics of Sterilization

July 30, 2011 BY danariely

When it comes to sterilization, Denmark has had a rather turbulent history. In 1929, in the midst of rising social concerns regarding an increase in sex crimes and general “degeneracy,” the Danish government passed legislation bordering on eugenics, requiring sterilization in some men and women. Between 1929 and 1967, while the legislation was active, approximately 11,000 people were sterilized – roughly half of them against their will.

Then, the policy was changed so that sterilization was still available, still free, but not involuntary. And as you might expect, the sterilization rate in Denmark dropped down dramatically – and stayed this way until 2010.

Now we come to 2010. In only a few short months, the sterilization rate increased fivefold. No, this was not a regression to the old legislation; it was a result of free choice…

What happened?  Last year, the Danish government announced that sterilization, which had been free, would cost at least 7,000 kroner (~$1,300) for men and 13,000 kroner (~$2,500) for women as of January 1st, 2011. Following the announcement, doctors performing sterilizations found that their patient load suddenly surged. People were scrambling to get sterilized while it was still free.

Now, it could be that the people who were already planning on getting sterilized at some point in the future just made their appointments a bit sooner, and conveniently saved some money.  But I can also imagine that (much like our research on free tattoos) there were many people who did not really think much about sterilization before the price change, but were so averse to giving up such a good deal that it pushed them to take the offer and undergo a fairly serious procedure.

And although we usually don’t think about sterilization as an impulse purchase, it might just become one when a free deal is about to be snipped.