Free Breakfast Hack

There’s always a reason why, and if we can find reasons why that are real, but not acknowledged, there is opportunity. Cruising, for instance, might have some hidden reasons and opportunities. The JTBD framework is built around this idea too. Economists call it stated and revealed preferences.

Danny Meyer noticed reasons-why as a restaurateur. It’s not just the food!

“That’s why people go out to eat, it’s not because they don’t want to cook or do the dishes. They want to be transported to a social environment.” Danny Meyer

As a kid I didn’t get this. Sometime around 1998 we went to Ocean City Maryland or Hilton Head South Carolina for a family vacation. We stayed on the beach. It was great. Each night we walked to a different restaurant for dinner and the only requirement was that it allowed flip flops.

One night we were at someplace on the sea, and I wanted fish, the catch of the day or some-such-thing only to discover that it was flown in from Maine. Huh? If I wanted fish from Maine we’d have gone there for vacation.

The lesson there, and still, is that there are a collection of features (acknowledged or not) that consumers want in a product or service. Seafood tastes better by the water.

But wait, there’s more.

People like to make easy choices for the features. Easy in the sense that the amount of work is appropriate for the amount of reward. Doing your own taxes isn’t necessarily easy, but some find the reward of financial savings, mental stimulation, and personal accountability worth it. The process of making the ledger determines the ease. Home improvement is another area. I’ve started many projects because the ledger making is easy, whereas the actual work became quite tricky, a miscalculation of the work-reward relationship.

One feature hack for easier decisions is free. Free is helpful because it’s an easy input and calculation. This can be seen in the free breakfast effect.

From conclusion of the 2012 paper, emphasis mine:

“Experiment 1 shows evidence of the zero price effect; specifically, the free breakfast effect. Even though people’s preferred alternative is the Meliá, when the cheaper option of the Ibáñez Hotel includes a free breakfast, the demand for the latter increases and for the former it decreases. Especially relevant is the fact that when the breakfast in the cheaper option is only €2 (i.e. a price that is virtually insignificant and very close to zero), people go for the more expensive alternative and are willing to pay the extra cost to stay at the Meliá. No matter how small the price is or that the net benefit for each alternative across conditions is identical, the net benefit for the cheaper option will only be superior to the more expensive option when the former offers a free breakfast.”

A two-buck breakfast isn’t easy to choose because the mental accounting is to ask, what’s the catch? Whereas a free breakfast leads to, well I’m probably paying a smidge more for the room but breakfast is another service like housekeeping, room service, or valet.

Free is a special shortcut in decision making, but not the only one. Fish taste better by the sea. Diners want atmosphere, except for fast food. What’s wonderful isn’t that there is no right answer but that there are so many answers. Like a studio engineer listening to a band, there are many dials to make something work.


Other examples of this idea are: Donation alchemy, “Earned” rewards, and eating vegetarian.
& Rory Sutherland quotes von Mises, the man who sweeps the restaurant floor is as important as the one who prepares the food.

Peloton ease

Economist Tyler Cowen cautions against the optimism around self-driving cars because when costs fall, consumption rises. If the costs of driving fall, there could be a lot more cars on the (now congested) road. Cost isn’t just about price, but also understandability, beliefs, and time.

Another way to think-like-an-economist is to consider ease. Every time a how will I… question gets answered things get easier and Peloton answers a lot of questions.

Wooden barrel

A wooden barrel like this can only hold water up to the shortest piece. Each answered how will I… extends the length of that board. Extend the set and action is taken. Here’s Christian Hunt on his background to buying a Peloton:

“My partner brought it up…we had been bombarded by advertisements…I knew a few people who had them and it just got to the point where we thought, ‘Let’s just give this a go, we can return it if we don’t like it.’ And the people I spoke to about it were so positively engaged. Worse case scenario: this thing goes back.” – @ChristianHunt, Human Risk

Just in that comment Hunt hints at the many boards that lead to a Peloton purchase. There’s price (finance it!), usage (we’ve got classes), social (follow your friends), competition (leaderboards), and even logistics!

When surveyed why they bought a Peloton, 78% of people said convenience. Consciously that means convenient to use but really it is everything.


Wood Barrel, via Wikipedia.

USA Swimming Analytics

The first breakthrough in swimming was imitation. Like with high jump, seeing a new way to do things helped. The second breakthrough was underwater footage. What’s next?

Adi Wyner asked, is there anything beyond video helping with swimming improvements? It’s a good question. Let’s get some sweet advanced analytical fruit from the random forest up in here!

“We don’t have any tools to calculate instantaneous velocity, which would be the most helpful. It (the tool) also can’t be something that burdens the swimmer because if equipment is hanging off of them it changes how they are interacting with the water.” – Russell Mark, USA Swimming, July 2021

It’s the classic question: how do I know what to do?

It could be that baseball was uniquely suited to analytics: lots of data, one-v.-one matchups, less cultural importance (relatively). Swimming, Mark explained, has a lot of different body types and so there’s less data and fewer answers for “what to do”.

But it’s not completely empty. USA swimming for instance hosts the Olympic trials three weeks before the games. The thinking here, explained by Wyner, is that individuals vary in their performance but not too much during this competition window. If variance runs ‘in chunks’ then a proximate trials-games window makes sense. This theory might work, it is showing some alpha erosion as for the 2020 games Australian swimming has copied this schedule.

Luckily most of life is not the Olympics. The greatest athletes in the world looking for improvements “at the margin” is not the model. Most of life is answering questions like a 15 or 30 year mortgage? Most of life is just choosing from the good options, not finding the best one to the nth degree.


It feels odd writing about luck without mentioning The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin. There we go, it’s mentioned.

Donation Alchemy

One fertile area for creativity (and anything new is creativity says John Cleese) is in the area between zero and some. It’s in these places where something moves from free to costing that behaviors change. Oh, and it doesn’t have to be an actual cost. Mental accounting works too.

There’s a concept in charitable giving called overhead aversion.

“We know that donations tend to decrease when overheads increase. That makes sense. People want to feel confident they are having a tangible impact. Interestingly, this only applies when donors have to pay for the overhead themselves. In one study when donors are informed that an initial major donor has covered the overhead, donors are more likely to take an overhead free donation option than opt for a 1:1 matching scheme — even though the matching scheme will yield more for the charity.” – Maddie Croucher

This felt right. My reaction was, well if they muck up the overhead at least I know my money was well spent. This isn’t logical, but I’m not sure it is wrong. At my daughter’s school they collect canned food for a local food pantry. There’s a celebration for the class with the largest mound outside its classroom door.

Now, it would ‘do more’ to donate cash, rather than send food of unknown cost, calories, and willingness to eat, and again I’m not sure it’s wrong. It feels good to know my money was well spent and that the food we bought won’t go to waste.

This school’s canned food drive might be partially driven by the foot-in-the-door effect:

“I always thought that asking small, an ask you can’t refuse from the godfather, works best. If you’re giving three dollars a month it’s much easier to up that to eight or ten than it is to go from naught to fifteen.” – Rory Sutherland

It’s not like I have to find cash or write a check and put it in an envelope. The kidney beans and mac ‘n cheese are within arms reach. Not only that, my kids collect it.

Charitable donation best practices are new to me but I’d wager that what works is ease. Make things financially, intellectually, or socially easy and people will do more. If the overhead is covered that removes the question: will my money go to to those who need it? A small ask might mean that people find doing easier than considering whether or not to. Charities, schools, or businesses can all remove the hurdles for their customers.


One other idea with-regards-to the classroom donations is the social lesson. The food is tangible and the kids collect it. There’s also probably some social signaling pressure among parents to ‘show up’. So net-net is a canned food drive ‘better’?

Big Game Gambling

Photo by Daria Sannikova on Pexels.com

On Bet The Process, Rufus Peabody, Jeff Ma, and John Murray of the Westgate Casino talk honestly about betting. The podcast reminds me of Econtalk. Rather than simple narrative answers, the true answer is some version of, well, it depends. The Big Football Game offers a chance to think about decision making and our bias to thinking that something specific will happen.

People are pretty terrible at weighing opportunity cost. Deciding on this or that is much easier than coming up with a list of options. Walk into any high school and you’ll hear students protest a fill-in-the-blank test when they expected a multiple choice version.

With the upcoming Big Football Game, recreational bettors in Las Vegas and other states will start to make prop-bets. Props, Murray said, were invented to make blowouts interesting. The 2020 Big Game, for example, offers a chance to bet if a fumble is lost in the second half (No, -150).

Make it interesting and immediate thinking lead to a tendency of people to bet for something to happen. Murray said, “The public will bet yes, yes, yes on everything in the prop markets.”

Rufus Peabody, former-prop-bet-gambler-extraordinaire, said that the bet of ‘no safety’ always has positive value. It’s easy for people to remember a past safety, envision a future one, or construct a narrative about someone’s defense chasing down someone else’s quarterback.

We remember the somethings that did happen rather than the one thing that didn’t.

With that in mind, let me give you a sure thing. The best over bet, will be to bet on overeating.