Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)
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Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)

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by William Poundstone

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Prada stores carry a few obscenely expensive items in order to boost sales for everything else (which look like bargains in comparison). People used to download music for free, then Steve Jobs convinced them to pay. How? By charging 99 cents. That price has a hypnotic effect: the profit margin of the 99 Cents Only store is twice that of Wal-Mart. Why do text


Prada stores carry a few obscenely expensive items in order to boost sales for everything else (which look like bargains in comparison). People used to download music for free, then Steve Jobs convinced them to pay. How? By charging 99 cents. That price has a hypnotic effect: the profit margin of the 99 Cents Only store is twice that of Wal-Mart. Why do text messages cost money, while e-mails are free? Why do jars of peanut butter keep getting smaller in order to keep the price the "same"? The answer is simple: prices are a collective hallucination.

In Priceless, the bestselling author William Poundstone reveals the hidden psychology of value. In psychological experiments, people are unable to estimate "fair" prices accurately and are strongly influenced by the unconscious, irrational, and politically incorrect. It hasn't taken long for marketers to apply these findings. "Price consultants" advise retailers on how to convince consumers to pay more for less, and negotiation coaches offer similar advice for businesspeople cutting deals. The new psychology of price dictates the design of price tags, menus, rebates, "sale" ads, cell phone plans, supermarket aisles, real estate offers, wage packages, tort demands, and corporate buyouts. Prices are the most pervasive hidden persuaders of all. Rooted in the emerging field of behavioral decision theory, Priceless should prove indispensable to anyone who negotiates.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Priceless is an instructive and entertaining romp through the hits of recent research on decision making, which will leave you amused, smarter, and wondering about what money and prices really mean.” —Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus, Princeton University, and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics

“A powerful argument that should be a wake-up call to everyone who still subscribes to the old model of economics.” —Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

“Poundstone has managed to write a book that is fun to read and yet well-researched and substantive. Without a minute of suffering the reader gets to know nearly all the key contributors to the science of decision making. Recommended for anyone who has to make decisions.” —Richard H. Thaler, coauthor (with Cass R. Sunstein) of Nudge: Improving Decisions on Health, Wealth and Happiness

“The psychology of prices is, to an extent, the psychology of life, and thus the lessons of Priceless are indeed life lessons. Poundstone's lively descriptions of the irrational quirks that characterize our behavior are engaging and enlightening. Take it with you when you're thinking of buying (or selling) something. It might save you a bundle.” —John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences and Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up

“If you can get this book for under $100, grab it! After you read it, you will better understand why the price you paid felt like a bargain.” —Max Bazerman, professor of business administration, Harvard Business School, and coauthor of Judgment in Managerial Decision Making

“Much of behavioral economics . . . has focused on the seemingly crazy ways in which people and prices interact. In his new book Priceless, William Poundstone offers a thoroughly accessible and enjoyable tour of this research . . . Poundstone is an engaging intellectual historian who traces the development of behavioral economics from its roots in the 1960s discipline called psychophysics, an offshoot of psychology . . . It was more than century ago that Oscar Wilde famously observed that ‘people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.' In Priceless, we now have the proof.” —Steven Pearlstine, Washington Post

“Pricing is a richer subject than you might imagine. The smile that creeps onto your face when a shameless marketing gambit reminds you of something you read in Poundstone's book? Priceless.” —Peter Coy, Business Week

“[Poundstone] makes complicated economic and psychological concepts palatable by using a numble, colloquial style in refreshingly short chapters . . . Dozens of fascinating topics are explored . . . At the end you will be left wondering what money and prices really mean--the dizzying quirky irrational sort of wonder that Alice found in ‘Wonderland.'” —Roger Miller, The Denver Post

“Bright analysis of the psychology of pricing . . . readable and revealing.” —Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Poundstone (Gaming the Vote) dives into the latest psychological findings to investigate how and why prices are allocated. Beginning with the controversial lawsuit in which a jury awarded $2.9 million in damages to a woman who had spilled a scalding cup of McDonald's coffee on herself, the author presents a readable history of how we are subtly manipulated into paying more (or less) for goods and services—and the research that attempts to explain our baffling and irrational susceptibility to pricing. The idea of “anchoring and adjustment”—setting an arbitrary number to subconsciously drive higher or lower estimates—is just one of many research areas explained at length. While Poundstone's case studies are vivid, the abundance of theories and experiments might prove overwhelming for the casual reader. Nevertheless, the scope of the analysis—its attention to economic abstractions as well as real-world consequences—braids together theory and practice to leave an indelible impression on the reader. Grocery shopping will never seem so simple again when one realizes how much work goes into assigning a price to a box of cereal. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
Bright analysis of the psychology of pricing. Poundstone (Gaming the Vote, 2008, etc.) immersed himself in the young field of behavioral decision theory to write this engaging book about the many irrational factors that influence the prices of things. Founded by University of Michigan psychologist Ward Edwards in the early 1960s, the field has produced insights that are now widely used by price consultants who help corporations "extract the maximum willingness to pay from each consumer." Prices are simply made-up numbers, writes the author, and most people are clueless about them. Experiments by psychologists at the Oregon Research Institute and elsewhere reveal the many ways to sway people who are estimating monetary values. For example, setting an absurdly high initial, or "anchor," price on an item (or demanding an exorbitant cash settlement from a jury) will generally lead people to pay more than they might have. In retail stores, obscenely high-priced items (such as a $7,000 handbag) make everything else (such as similar $2,000 handbags) look affordable. Similarly, in another exploitation of the "contrast effect" in prices, more $800 shoes will be sold when $1,200 shoes are displayed next to them. After describing the field's major researchers and their work, Poundstone devotes most of the book to explaining how behavioral decision-making plays out in the real world, where price numbers are influenced by many irrelevant factors. He explains how supermarkets are able to charge premium prices for "organic" and "green" products; how restaurant menus are designed to draw attention to profitable dishes; how rebates cast a magic spell on consumers, many of whom never submit claims or cashthe checks that are sent out; and why the sky's-the-limit prices charged for text messages are "possibly the greatest ongoing con job of American capitalism." Online shoppers will be dismayed to learn how background images on websites can affect product choices, and Poundstone provides plenty of useful information for negotiators, car and home buyers, investors and others trying to figure out what to pay. Readable and revealing.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


The $2.9 Million Cup of Coffee

In 1994 an Albuquerque jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.9 million in damages after she spilled a piping-hot cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself. This resulted in third-degree burns and precious little sympathy from the American public. Late-night comics and drive-time DJs turned Liebeck into a punch line. Talk radio pundits saw the lawsuit as Exhibit A to What’s Wrong with Our Legal System. A Seinfeld episode had Kramer suing over spilled coffee, and a website inaugurated the "Stella Awards"—booby prizes for the wackiest perversions of the justice system.

Liebeck’s injuries were no joke. Her grandson had driven her to the McDonald’s drive-through window. They bought the coffee, then pulled over and stopped the car so that Mrs. Liebeck could add cream and sugar. She steadied the cup between her legs as she pried off the lid. That’s when it spilled. Liebeck racked up $11,000 in medical bills for skin grafts on her groin, buttocks, and thighs. The tricky question was, how do you put a price on Liebeck’s suffering and McDonald’s culpability?

Liebeck initially asked the fast-food chain for $20,000. McDonald’s dismissed that figure and countered with a buzz-off offer of $800.

Liebeck’s attorney, New Orleans–born S. Reed Morgan, had ridden in this rodeo before. In 1986 he sued McDonald’s on behalf of a Houston woman who also had third-degree burns from a coffee spill. In his most mesmerizing Deep South baritone, Morgan advanced the legally ingenious theory that McDonald’s coffee was "defective" because it was too hot. McDonald’s quality control people said the coffee should be served at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, and this was shown to be hotter than some other chains’ coffee. The Houston case was settled for $27,500.

Morgan monitored subsequent coffee lawsuits closely. He knew that in 1990 a California woman had suffered third-degree burns from McDonald’s coffee and settled, with no great fanfare, for $230,000. There was one big difference. In the California case, it was a McDonald’s employee who had spilled coffee on the woman.

Since Liebeck had spilled the coffee on herself, logic would say that her case was worth a lot less than $230,000. Morgan ignored that precedent and used a controversial psychological technique on the jury. I will describe that in a moment. For the time being, I will represent it with a row of dollar signs:

$ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $

The technique worked. As if hypnotized, the jury awarded Liebeck just under $2.9 million. That was $160,000 in compensatory damages plus $2.7 million in punitive damages. It took the jury four hours to decide. Reportedly, some jurors wanted to award as much as $9.6 million, and the others had to talk them down.

Judge Robert Scott apparently thought the jury award was as outlandish as almost everyone else in America did. He slashed the punitive damages to $480,000.

Even with the reduced award, an appeal from McDonald’s was inevitable. The eighty-one-year-old Liebeck wasn’t getting any younger. She soon settled with McDonald’s for an undisclosed amount said to be less than $600,000. She must have recognized that she had hit a home run and wasn’t likely to repeat it.

Skippy peanut butter recently redesigned its plastic jar. "The jar used to have a smooth bottom," explained Frank Luby, a price consultant with Simon-Kucher & Partners in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It now has an indentation, which takes a couple of ounces of peanut butter out of the product." The old jar contained 18 ounces; the new one has 16.3. The reason, of course, is so that Skippy can charge the same price.

That dimple at the bottom of the peanut butter jar has much to do with a new theory of pricing, one known in the psychology literature as coherent arbitrariness. This says that consumers really don’t know what anything should cost. They walk the supermarket aisles in a half-conscious daze, judging prices from cues, helpful and otherwise. Coherent arbitrariness is above all a theory of relativity. Buyers are mainly sensitive to relative differences, not absolute prices. The new Skippy jar essentially amounts to a 10 percent increase in the price of peanut butter. Had they just raised the price 10 percent (to $3.39, say), shoppers would have noticed and some would have switched brands. According to the theory, the same shopper would be perfectly happy to pay $3.39 for Skippy, just as long as she doesn’t know there’s been an increase.

Luby holds a physics degree from the University of Chicago. In his job as price consultant, he more often thinks like a magician. Like a skillful conjurer, he is asked to manage what buyers notice and remember. Skippy peanut butter’s customers often have small children and purchase it so regularly that they remember the last price they paid. For such products, consultants recommend creative ways of "invisibly" shrinking packages. In summer 2008 Kellogg’s phased in thinner boxes of Cocoa Krispies, Froot Loops, Corn Pops, Apple Jacks, and Honey Smacks cereals. No one noticed. Shoppers just see the box’s width and height on the shelf; by the time they reach for the box, the decision has been made and they’re thinking of something else.

Dial and Zest recently changed the sculptural contours of their bars, shaving half an ounce off the weight. The boxes stayed about the same. Quilted Northern made its Ultra Plush toilet paper half an inch narrower. The makers of Puffs tissues shrank the length of their product from 8.6 to 8.4 inches. As the Puffs box remained the same (9.5 inches wide), there is presently over an inch of air hidden inside. You can’t see it because the opening is in the middle. In any case, a shopper wouldn’t notice the shrinkage unless she archived old Puffs tissues and measured them.

This ruse can go on only so long. Cereal boxes would collapse to cardboard envelopes; jars would become plastic voids. Eventually there arrives a point at which the manufacturer must make a bold move everyone will notice. It introduces a new, economy-size package. In size, shape, or other design features, the new package (and its price) is difficult to compare to the old. The consumer is flummoxed, unable to tell whether the new package is a good deal or not. So she tosses it into the cart. The cycle of shrinking packages repeats, ad infinitum.

If you find this a silly charade, you’re not alone. Just about everyone does, when they think about it. Many grumble they’d rather pay an inflation-adjusted price for the quantities they’ve known. Others swear they look at the market’s comparison labels, giving price per ounce, and wouldn’t be fooled. One of the things that price consultants have learned is that what consumers say and what they do are not the same thing. For the most part, memories of prices are short, and memories of boxes and packages shorter.

It wasn’t so long ago that companies priced their products with no strategy beyond the demand curves of Economics 101. In the past generation, firms such as Boston Consulting, Roland Berger, Revionics, and Atenga have prospered by advising businesses on the surprisingly complex psychology of price. No firm has spearheaded the professionalization of pricing more than Simon-Kucher & Partners (SKP). German business professor Hermann Simon and two of his doctoral students founded the firm in Bonn in 1985. SKP is now nearing five hundred employees stationed all over the globe, with U.S. offices in Cambridge, New York, and San Francisco. With sixty Ph.D.s on staff, quite a few in physics, SKP has a reputation as the rocket scientists of pricing. The firm exudes a Star Trek cosmopolitanism. Employees from India, Korea, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain mingle in the Cambridge office, and it’s the practice to rotate promising consultants among nations. Each year SKP assembles its far-flung employees for a party at a castle on the Rhine.

The influence of SKP on the prices we pay for just about everything is as little recognized as it is staggering. Rules that apply to other types of consultancies don’t apply to pricing. An ad agency would not have Coca-Cola and Pepsi as clients—but SKP does. In many industries, SKP advises half a dozen of the leading firms. Its current roster of clients includes Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Microsoft, Intel, Texas Instruments, T-Mobile, Vodaphone, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Honeywell, Thyssen-Krupp, Warner Music, Bertelsmann, Merck, Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, UBS, Barclays, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Dow Jones, Hilton, British Airways, Lufthansa, Emirates Airlines, BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Toyota, General Motors, Volvo, Caterpillar, Adidas, and the Toronto Blue Jays. The same psychological tricks apply whether you’re setting a price for text messages or toilet paper or airline tickets. To SKP’s consultants, prices are the most pervasive of hidden persuaders.

Though a price is just a number, it can evoke a complex set of emotions—something now visible in brain scans. Depending on the context, the same price may be perceived as a bargain or a rip-off; or it may not matter at all. A few of the tricks are timeless, like shrinking packages and prices ending in the magic number 9. But price consultancy is more than the latest chapter in flat-world hucksterism. It draws on some of the most important and innovative recent work in psychology. In the mundane act of naming a price, we translate the desires of our hearts into the public language of numbers. That turns out to be a surprisingly tricky process.

Excerpted from Priceless by William Poundstone.

Copyright 2010 by William Poundstone.

Published in 2010 by Hill and Wang.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

William Poundstone is the author of two previous Hill and Wang books: Fortune's Formula and Gaming the Vote.

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Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Galadin More than 1 year ago
The prose can be dry, and the material may not be organized in the most efficient manner, but the subject matter is important for anyone who buys or sells anything. The idea that prices are an intangible concept for buyers is something everyone should understand. While I wouldn't recommend the book to everyone, I think it is a bit tedious at parts, those who have an interest should definitely read it. William Poundstone spends a lot of time talking about anchoring, the magic of 9 and other items of pricing that are so important. He even offers some tips on how to avoid being manipulated by pricing strategies. This is one of those books that you might not think will influence you, but once you read it and then go out to any store, yard sale, or auction, you will start recognizing many of the concepts outlined.
NewtonJr More than 1 year ago
This book has two markets: the consumer trying to understand today's marketing (and not get scammed!) and the businessperson looking to price effectively. There's a lot of good material, in short, snappy chapters with anecdotes and examples everyone can relate to. A fast, fun read, one you'll remember a long time.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bored with too great a detail. Had to put the book down.