Today I was walking down the street and I spotted, in the distance, a shiny, gold two dollar coin. Fearing I would look like a total cheapskate if I frantically ran over to the coin and picked it up, I casually sauntered over to the coin, hoping that no one else had spotted it, and put my foot on it. It was conveniently located next to a wall, so it wasn’t like I needed to try and find some excuse to stand there – like pretending to look at my watch and then glance around as if I was waiting for someone (I find looking at your phone is also a good distraction) – instead I could just lean there like some kind of a hooligan with nothing better to do. Five minutes later I figured it impossible that anyone still in the vicinity had seen the coin and so I slowly removed my shoe, bent over, and picked up the $2 coin.
Now just to put this in perspective a $2 coin in Australia is probably JUST enough to buy you a bottle of water, provided you buy it from a supermarket. Keeping this in mind, I knew full well that I wasn’t even going to be able to go and a 600ML bottle of Coca Cola with this bounty, but for some reason my mind was racing at the possibilities. It felt a little dirty, like I’d killed someone and plundered the coin from their dead corpse. But for some reason that made it feel so much sweeter.
A few minutes later, after stopping and speaking to a few townsfolk, I headed into the store. Behind the counter was a full-bodied man, with a bald head and a rather impressive beard. He asked me what I was buying. I hesitated for a minute knowing full well that the money I was about to spend wasn’t mine to spend. But that guilt wasn’t enough to stop me from uttering the word “330ML bottle of Coke, please”.
I walked out of the store, potion in hand, knowing what I’d done, that I’d left the house today with nothing and without so much as lifting a finger, had yielded a bottle of sweet, sweet nectar. I twisted the bottle top off and the effervescence was surprisingly powerful, blowing my long hair away as if a sudden gust of wind has set upon the street. I took a sip. The sweet, sugary nectar seemed better than normal. It seemed magical. Suddenly rainbows came across the sky, unicorns started prancing down the street and I grew wings and started flying, soaring even, through the unnaturally blue sky. Landing on a cloud I stopped to contemplate for a moment, and came upon the following thought – this bottle of Coca Cola may be the best drink I have ever tasted.
But it wasn’t that the Coke tasted any better, it was because of that ‘free’ $2 coin.
This is a real life example of how our brain values loot, both as an active piece of equipment and as a means to acquire better goods, in video games. With a perceived near zero opportunity cost in acquiring that $2 coin the human brain perceives any transaction associated with it as having an incredibly large positive net benefit.
And this is precisely why the concept of purchasing ‘loot’ with real money is unlikely to ever gain momentum with most consumers, provided that they behave in a rational manner.