John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is the last in a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List appeared in our recent podcast "How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten."
Pay-what-you-want is a bit of an oxymoron for economists. After all, if you had the choice of how much to pay, wouldn’t you always pick $0? But as we’ve found time and again, people are a lot more complicated than typical economists have assumed.
Case-in-point: in 2007 Radiohead made their album In Rainbows downloadable online for whatever price customers wanted to pay. Precise statistics are hard to come by, but one thing is clear: a lot of people paid a good amount of cash for the album. In fact, it was so successful that other acts have followed suit. Heck, even corporations like Panera have gotten into the act, setting up cafes in St. Louis and Chicago where customers pay what they can for certain menu items.
What got us curious, though, was trying to answer why people were paying more than $0. In particular we wanted to know what sorts of levers could we pull that would induce people to pay more or pay less in an economic environment like Radiohead’s website? Luckily, right around this time we started working with Disney Research, and they were just as interested in these questions.