At a theme park, Gneezy conducted a massive study of over 113,000 people who had to choose whether to buy a photo of themselves on a roller coaster. They were given one of four pricing plans. Under the basic one, when they were asked to pay a flat fee of $12.95 for the photo, only 0.5% of them did so.
When they could pay what they wanted, sales skyrocketed and 8.4% took a photo, almost 17 times more than before. But on average, the tight-fisted customers paid a measly $0.92 for the photo, which barely covered the cost of printing and actively selling one. That’s not the best business model – the company proves itself to be generous, it’s products sell like (free) hot-cakes, but its profit margins take a big hit. You could argue that Radiohead experienced the same thing – their album was a hit but customers paid relatively little for it.
When Gneezy told customers that half of the $12.95 price tag would go to charity, only 0.57% riders bought a photo – a pathetic increase over the standard price plan. This is akin to the practices of “corporate social responsibility” that many companies practice, where they try to demonstrate a sense of social consciousness. But financially, this approach had minimal benefits. It led to more sales, but once you take away the amount given to charity, the sound of hollow coffers came ringing out. You see the same thing on eBay. If people say that 10% of their earnings go to charity, their items only sell for around 2% more.
But when customers could pay what they wanted in the knowledge that half of that would go to charity, sales and profits went through the roof. Around 4.5% of the customers asked for a photo (up 9 times from the standard price plan), and on average, each one paid $5.33 for the privilege. Even after taking away the charitable donations, that still left Gneezy with a decent profit.