There Are No Free Skittles

photoLast week, I went on a mission with my two sons, Kieran and Connor, ages nine and seven.  The mission was to acquire newly released Lego sets bearing the resemblance of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with whom the boys particularly identify.  And while any expedition to Toys-R-Us can be fraught with peril, this one was an especially harrowing trip.

After claiming our intended purchase, we waited in line.  (Have you ever seen two boys, ages seven and nine, wait in a line?)  Not without a penchant for distraction myself, I wandered momentarily out of the cue and asked the boys to stay in line.  Upon my return—no more than 20 seconds hence—I noticed Connor chewing something.

“What are you chewing, Connor?”

“A Skittle.”

“Where’d you get that Skit—Oh, Connor, did you pick that up off of the floor?”

“Yup.” (Proudly.)

Later, when my wife asked him why he felt compelled to forage for food (we’d just eaten dinner, by the way) on the floor of the toy store, he answered quite matter-of-factly, “Free Skittle.”

Of course we know there are no free Skittles, but even we adults continue to be drawn to that which has no apparent cost.  How else is it, then, that a frightening plurality of the phone calls and emails we receive each day are goading us to simply receive a gift that is seemingly priceless with supposedly no price?  Obviously, there’s a market for it.  So whether it is our hopeless good nature that wishes to believe in the altruism of the free gift giver (unlikely) or our burning desire to receive something-for-nothing (more likely), the freebie-seeking thread is so persistent in us that the theme remains a constant in money and life.

We need not submit ourselves, however, to the entirely skeptical or willfully naïve camps.  There is a third option: to recognize that everyone (and nearly everything) has a bias.  The bias may be personal, but is quite often an economic bias—a conflict of interest where money is somehow involved.  It is most likely this bias that is affecting the behavior of the grantor of a “gift” and its actual price.  And lest you think economic bias is reserved for swindlers, it serves us well to recognize that it is actually quite ubiquitous.  Pastors, priests, aid workers and (gasp) doctors are no freer from economic bias than anyone—indeed, the bias may be even more powerful when it’s presumed nonexistent.

Everyone has a bias.  It doesn’t make them—us—bad people, but we’re all selling something, and the sooner you recognize that, the less likely you’ll be to get on that email list, hit LIKE on Facebook, sign up for that seminar…or eat free Skittles off the floor.