On Tuesday, March 30th, a beautiful spring day, the Memphis Zoo learned the price of free.
Some 25,000 people showed up at the zoo that day, most of them coming after 2 p.m., when admission is free until the zoo closes at 5 p.m. Because Memphis City Schools were closed for spring break, many of the visitors were students.
Traffic backed up on Midtown streets around the zoo, there were fights inside and outside the gates, some hotheads fired off a gun, and police had to be called to clear not only the zoo but all of Overton Park for a few hours.
The zoo administration promised to reevaluate "free day" and, at this writing, is considering options ranging from expanded hours to restricted admission.
There is another option the zoo should consider. Instead of making admission free on free day, charge a nominal price of $1 or $2, and expand the "free" hours to all day instead of 2-5 p.m.
In short, apply the principles of freakonomics to free day.
Freakonomics , and the follow-up Super Freakonomics , are bestselling books by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner that take an unconventional way of looking at human behavior and incentives. Borrowing from the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and others, they describe how people act differently when given a choice of something that is free versus the same thing with a nominal price.
Normal admission to the zoo is $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 2 to 11. An annual pass costs $45, or $70 for a couple. That is not a financial hardship for most people — a cell phone costs that much or more every month. But $15 is a significant amount for most students. Going to the zoo for free was a rational decision in dollars-and-cents terms, plus the benefits of hanging out with other kids on a nice day.
But what if there had been an admis-sion charge of just $1? Would the crowd that day have been smaller and more manageable? Research cited by Levitt and Dubner and others suggests the answer might be "yes."
We value something differently when there is a nominal price on it. It isn't that we don't have a dollar; it's that the price makes us stop and think. We are engaged more mentally and emotionally than we are when something is free. Parents and children have understood this since the invention of the allowance.
It's easy, of course, to make too much of this. Predicting the behavior of thousands of teenagers is a risky proposition. The good weather was a factor, and so, in all likelihood, was the ability to spread the word via cellphones, Facebook, and Twitter. But the zoo folks, who should have anticipated this problem based on previous crowds at "free day," should be required to read Freakonomics as well as Chris Anderson's book Free: The Future of a Radical Price , and Ken Auletta's Googled before they make a decision about admission prices.
My first real job out of college was working in Nashville at what used to be called a reform school for kids who weren't making it in traditional schools. One day a nice person delivered us a couple of baskets of fresh fruit. Ordinarily, fruit was no big deal. Kids could take an apple, orange, or banana from a tray behind a glass window in the lunch line any time they wanted to, although they hardly ever did, despite our encouragement.
But when we thoughtlessly put those pretty baskets out on the tables, there was chaos for a few minutes. Kids were scrambling for fruit, cramming fruit in their pockets, fighting over fruit.
There was stuff out there, man, and it was free.