The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

I couldn’t resist “Woman shocked peers over spectacles at upward trending graph arrow” as the lead image for this one. This is cheese personified and I love it! (Credit: geralt via Pixabay)

We all like to think we have ‘values’, and we all like to think we follow those values. There are a number of psychological processes, effects and tricks all involved in the ascribing of ‘value’ to a trait, an object or a service. The concept of ‘value’ itself is a tricky one to even pin down.

Honestly it is possibly one of the most complex areas of psychology because what the human mind ‘values’ often seems to be at odds with what the human individual suggests they ‘value’. We lie to ourselves. Any person who has attempted to start an independent business can attest to this. Their friends and family who should be championing their cause loudly and proudly instead barely whimper their support whilst sharing the same memes, Guardian articles and vox pops as everyone else.

For example take a look at my body of work. It is valued at approximately £0.00 because I release my work for free. However in so doing I present an image of my work as worthless, and despite your best intentions you perceive it thus. I happen to think my work is very valuable but I struggle for attention, a simple Facebook share, or a Retweet on twitter is as good as an extra 10-20 views to me and yet people are hesitant to give them out.

They do not specifically provide me any feedback to say why, either. Is my content something they enjoy but do not want their friends/followers to see? Do they support me out of pity but actually don’t value my output? Do they feel I am competing with them in some way and thus hesitate to promote me above themselves? I don’t know, because I never get any feedback.

I have had one person ask me if I intend to attempt to make money out of what I do and suggest they would support me. One person.

Ah, psychology – The complex, interconnected clockwork of machinations, biases, heuristics and combined rationality and irrationality that literally makes no sense but we try to make it make sense anyway because if we didn’t nothing would make sense. Make sense? (Credit: geralt via Pixabay)

I have had many people supporting my raging against the machine when I am ranting and raving about having been long-term unemployed but I have, as yet, been contacted by approximately zero people offering to pay me for what I do, suggesting roles I could fill or helping financially in any way. Except one.

I present my work for free, ergo my work, and thus, by extension, I, am worthless.

We all do it. I can’t claim to be a saint on this matter myself. I order from Amazon, have the odd McDonalds, share Guardian articles and buy books by established authors. I could sit and criticise but I understand this is an almost-universal, that this is psychology.

For starters we have what’s known as the ‘Mere Ownership Effect’ or just the ‘Ownership Effect’, this is the psychological phenomenon of people ascribing a higher value to an object in their ownership than people who do not own it do.

So if I give you something and say “That’s yours! What do you think?” you are more likely to attach greater positivity, higher value, to that something than if I simply say “Look what I have! What do you think?”

Your ownership of the object makes you more positively inclined towards it.

This came up on Pixabay when I was looking for images of ‘Ownership’. My one and only major question is…Did they deliberately make it look like a dick? (Credit: 12995263 via Pixabay)

This ties in to the ‘Endowment Effect’ where something we own is going to be more desirable to keep than if you did not own it.

So take the example from earlier, where I give you an object, only we’ll add in the scenario where, whilst in your possession, a third-party wants to buy the object.

The person who ‘owns’ the something is less likely to part with it, or only be willing to part with it for a much higher cost, than the person who simply holds, and assigns value to, the something.

It gets weirder. Say we give two people two somethings, one each; make it a biscuit and a handkerchief.  People first given a biscuit would be unwilling to trade it for a handkerchief. People first given a handkerchief would be unwilling to trade it for a biscuit. It’s weird, right?

Well in the paper describing the phenomenon by economic psychological superstar Daniel Kahneman he proposes another example of a wine investor who purchases some excellent Bordeaux at only $10 a bottle. Over time it has come to be worth $200 a bottle but still he does not sell it. Why? The Endowment Effect!

It ties into ‘loss aversion’ – this one is at least a simple concept to explain. We don’t like to feel like we have lost something. Whether it be value, an item, our sanity, we like to keep our things.

“But what about the ‘Zero Price Effect’?” I hear snooty econo-psychologists shouting from the back. Well, yes, that’s a real thing, too. You know when Starbucks has a ‘Free Coffee for Everyone!’ day and the queue is around the corner with people wasting hours of their time waiting in line for a coffee that only costs a couple of quid and no time on any other day.

fifth on the list of numbers you like to see on a calculator behind “55378008”, “5318008”, “58008” and “42069”. The value is zero. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Duck egg. Fuck all. And it’s what I feel I’m worth right now. (Credit: shotput via Pixabay)

You see that coffee already has a ‘value’ assigned to it by the company in line with, presumably, market research, economic conditions etc. etc. But the product cost something to begin with. But because it is marketed as ‘free for a day!’ everyone thinks they can save money. Instead they waste hours, time, a commodity that can be used to generate money, waiting for something that probably is of less value than the time used to wait for it. It’s irrational and yet so many people do it.

How big would that line be if Starbucks was free every day? If they never charged for a cup of coffee?

You’d expect normal size, right?

But research seems to suggest that if a coffee shop then opens up right next door selling coffee for £1 a pop, they might actually steal business from the free Starbucks!

HUH!?

That’s not a mistake, for one thing people would think free coffee must be more poorly made than coffee you have to pay for. Because the value is set at zero we assume the quality to be so aligned. We’ve looked at the ‘Halo Effect’ before and it’s a similar heuristic to that only with product values rather than human values.

Then there’s the idea of ‘Veblen Goods’ – These are luxury goods. Now with luxury goods you would expect, since the level of investment required is so vast, the demand for such goods would reduce the higher the price goes. Veblen Goods defy that trend. Demand for them increases in line with price (to an extent).

Ah, Monaco. The height of tax-dodging, society-fucking, scum-sucking, bottom-feeding, piece-of-shit luxury. Incidentally many ‘influencers’ will hire an apartment here, borrow a luxury car, withdraw all their savings or even borrow a load of money, spray it about sat on top of the luxury car/yacht in the borrowed apartment to make themselves look richer than they are so they can be ‘aspirational’ and manipulate you into giving them more money because for some reason we’re so irrational we’d rather give to the rich than the poor. Humans are dumb! (Credit: Free-Photos via Pixabay)

So, imagine if all coffee was free and then suddenly the £1 coffee place opens up and, of course they then pay to have a trend-setter go to their place for a coffee and say “Mmm! It’s better than free coffee!” Well suddenly a large amount of easily influenced people want the £1 coffee over the free coffee. But this will likely start a chain reaction! I mean, sure some sensible people will be like “It’s bitter flavoured caffeine suspension, I don’t give a shit for fashion, free is free!” But only a handful of individuals work like that, SOCIETY doesn’t work like that. Trends get set, fashion is, and leads the majority.

Marketing and advertising are the literal acts of psychological manipulation in order to encourage as many people as possible to make choices of value and invest in objects, products, goods or services that they would otherwise not value as highly! Why is Coca-Cola so much more expensive than own brand cola? Is it genuinely better? Surely since people’s tastes differ so much individually you’d expect variance, some people to prefer one over the other? Yet so many more people ‘prefer’ Coca-Cola. This is not an accident, but the product of, at this point, an historical campaign of targeting manipulation.

“We don’t know why we do what we do but we carry on and do it regardless.”
That’s a line from one of my songs (unreleased) but it is my whole attitude to psychology and behaviour in humans. Even I don’t know why I do most of the stuff I do.

Did you realise that your life choices, what businesses you support or don’t support, what products you buy or don’t buy are the subject of so many seemingly unconscious rules of thumb, and subject to manipulation of those rules by people who understand them better than you?

Then we have things like the ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’ where you’re more willing to stick with an investment, even if it is bad, and the benefit to you of giving up is greater than the cost of continuing. Governments make stupid decisions to the tune of billions and billions of pounds, dollars, pesos and yen being led by the Sunk Cost Fallacy, do you think you’re immune?

The ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’ or ‘Sunken Cost Fallacy’ – to use a visual metaphor – is the idea that you’d rather get wet staying in this boat, because you paid for it, than swim to shore and live your life and just get a new boat. (Credit: rumpel via Pixabay)

The idea of something having ‘value’ and the ‘value’ we give it being an individual one is patent nonsense. Whilst there is almost certainly individual variation in values of products, goods and services (some people, for example, will pay money for Funko Pops! – I know, outrageous!) Most of our perception of value is based on past experience, cultural coding and current trends.

This is how marketing works. This is why ‘influencers’ are a thing, and why marketing has got a lot more shady and underground in recent years. We’ve got DVR, we can fast-forward through ads on TV, we’ve got ad-blockers on our computers. But if we’re all following Lady Gaga on twitter and Givenchy wants to chuck a few million her way to put up a post about how great their perfume is, you get it sold to you.

The problem with all of these effects, all of this trick psychology is that we all literally end up knowing the cost of everything and the value, the true, innate value, of nothing.

And then there’s cognitive dissonance.

So the people who know about all of this stuff will agree with me, but will do nothing to share or distribute this article.

Meanwhile the people who think they know better will just ‘know’ I’m wrong and won’t even question themselves.

This is not graffiti. (Credit: KylaBorg CC-BY-2.0)

Why am I talking about this now? Because I’m not getting any younger, I have a troubled past and no perceivable future. Everything I’ve ever worked for has gone tits-up and my life’s a mess. I’m considering options and wondering quite what people would think if I paywalled my content. Have I done too much for free to make it of value to people? Or would my work be valued more if I charged money for it? Would people even support me? Are people willing to pay for my thoughts, words, interpretations and opinions on things? Does it defeat the point of ‘We Lack Discipline’? Does it remove the accessibility aspect of it? To what extent could I even make a success of it?

I can’t answer those questions. Only a half-aware, bumbling market can. That market is made up of human beings who are irrational, motivated by unconscious biases they often don’t consider and for all of my effort those people would be more likely to share the C- efforts of a BBC journalist than any A+ piece I might write.

So, I’m in a pickle, because I have to think about whether I can trust people with my future.

And we’re not smart people with conscious free-will; we’re semi-automatic idiots with a manual override.

So I don’t know what to do. Feedback and input is welcome.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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