You get what you pay for

At the start of his book Influence, persuasion expert Robert Cialdini tells the story of a friend who ran a jewelry store.

The friend was trying to get rid of some turquoise stones, which weren’t selling.

And after many failed attempts at promoting the the unmoving turquoise, Cialdini’s friend finally decided to slash the price.

“This price x %,” she wrote on a note to her assistant before leaving town for two weeks.

When she got back, the turquoise had indeed sold. The only catch was, it didn’t sell because the price had been reduced some x%.

The assistant misread the note as “This price x 2” and doubled the prices.

In other words, the turquoise sold because the price had been increased.

Cialdini’s point is that we all have little automated scripts in our minds that help us make quick decisions in a very complex world.

One of those scripts is “you get what you pay for,” or in other words, price equals value.

When it comes to making decisions that are complex or that involve lots of unknowns… it makes good sense to focus on one factor that’s served us well in the past, such as price, even if it’s not a perfect predictor.

But what about those times when we don’t have to make quick decisions?

It sometimes still happens that we don’t rely on what’s in our apparent self-interest. We sometimes still love to pay more that we really have to.

The only difference is, the payment might not be in terms of money.

As an illustration, here’s what George Orwell had to say in a 1940 review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf:

The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. […] Hitler … knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.

So maybe the conclusion is not, “you get what you pay for.”

Instead, it might be, “you don’t get what you don’t pay for,” or, “anything worth having is worth paying for.”


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