In Defense of Free Bread.

Ezra Klein, in addition to writing a sensible and informed policy blog at The American Prospect, also blogs for The Internet Food Association on a variety of culinary topics.  But I simply cannot agree with basically any part of his anti-free-bread post from earlier today:

…there’s no such thing as “free bread.” Rather, there’s such a thing as “slightly more expensive entrees.” And that’s the thing people are getting when they think they’re getting free bread.

[snip]

Ariely conducted a similar experiment himself. He set up shop in a mall and offered shoppers one of two deals. Either they could have a free $10 certificate (which is to say, a free $10), or they could pay $7 for a $20 certificate (which is to say, a free $13). Literally everyone chose the first. But when Ariely made the $10 certificate cost a single dollar, two-thirds of the folks he stopped preferred to pay for the $20 certificate.

What does this have to do with bread?  In short, people consume a lot more of something when they think it’s free. Even attaching a marginal cost to the bread bowl — a quarter, say, or a dollar — would probably lead consumption to plummet. That would make everything else on the menu cheaper and, incidentally, make dining out a bit healthier as people wouldn’t overconsume bread. It’s not just that the bread eaters are being subsidized by the bread refuseniks right now. It’s that everyone is wired to eat more of the bread because they think they’re getting something free.

I think Klein fundamentally misinterprets the true implications of the experiment.  From a strictly economic point of view, the mallgoers’ actions were nonsensical.  But from an emotional point of view, they make perfect sense: people very much like getting things for free, and they very much dislike having to give things up.  I recently read about an experiment (and I can’t cite a source here because I’ve forgotten; you’ll just have to take my word) in which random people on the street were approached and asked to bet on a coin flip.  If it came up heads, they had to give the experimenter a dollar.  But if it came up tails, the experimenter would give them x amount of dollars, and the experimenters were trying to determine where that x value fell for the majority of people.

What they found is that almost no one would take the bet unless it was a two-to-one ration – that is, the people had to be offered two dollars to risk giving up their one.  But most people went even higher than that, and many wouldn’t even take the bet for five or ten dollars.  Some people simply wouldn’t take the bet at all.  People really don’t like having to give things up.

So I would argue that the people who chose the ten-dollar gift certificate – even though they were losing money – were not making the wrong choice; they were making the choice that would ultimately make them happier.  If I were to pay seven dollars for the twenty-dollar gift certificate, I guarentee you that I would walk away thinking, “Well, did I really need to spend that seven dollars?  I wasn’t even planning on buying anything today anyway.  And I have been trying to save money.  Maybe I should have saved that money for a burrito.”  But if I were to choose the ten-dollar gift certificate, I would walk away thinking, “Free money!”  And I think that’s worth more than three dollars to me.

To bring this back around to bread – I think that if restaurants stopped offering free bread (or, heaven forbid, free chips and salsa) there is a very real chance that consumers would talk themselves out of paying for it, and their meals would be immeasurably poorer for it.  It is not simply that the bread is delicous; it is that it is delicious and free, and the knowledge that the cost is folded in elsewhere seems very abstract when you’re mashing down on a crusty baguette.  Sometimes it’s okay to get duped if you’re happier for it.