The Psychology Behind Free Samples

Who doesn’t love free stuff? You can’t tell us that you’ve never gone over to a stall giving away free food just for a taste, or taken the little promotional samples out of magazines just to give them a go? After all, it’s free, so there’s no risk to you in trying them, and who knows, you might find something new that you love.

This is the whole basis behind free sampling, and it’s worked for decades. But did you know that it isn’t as simple as just rocking up with a stand and giving away samples? There is actually quite a lot of psychology that goes into planning, preparing and doing a demo, and while we’re not going to reveal all of our secrets, here are a few of our favourite reasons why free samples work so well.

Taking Advantage of Pavlovian Conditioning

You’ve probably heard of Pavlov and his dogs. He’s the scientist who, while studying the digestive systems of dogs, noticed that they salivated whenever he came into the room – because when they saw him they knew it meant food was coming. He experimented further with this and found that the brains of animals and humans can be conditioned to associate a certain stimulus with a certain response, often without even being aware it’s happening. It’s called Classical Conditioning, and it can look like:

Scent Memory:

Our olfactory sense is incredibly strong, and one of the oldest senses we have as human beings. It’s what allows us to identify different smells and associate them with different things, for example, food. It also means our brain ties memories strongly to certain scents, and when we smell them again the memories are all brought back. For example, many people will associate a perfume with a certain person, or the smell of baking cookies with Christmas.


Brand Ambassador giving out free food samples

Brand Ambassador giving out free food samples

Food Aversion:

Someone tries a new food, and contracts food poisoning. They now associate that food with feeling awful, and don’t want to eat it in future. Even the smell, texture or sight of that food could bring up those feelings of illness again.

Positive Parenting:

A common parenting method is to praise children for good behaviour, or for doing the behaviour you want them to. Receiving this praise from a parent makes the child feel good, and the child learns to associate the behaviour with receiving praise and feeling proud – so will repeat the positive behaviour.

In the world of food, companies can use the memories and associations customers have with food, from the smell, texture, taste and even the look, to condition them into buying their products. Think of every supermarket that pumps the smell of freshly baked bread into the air, or the fact that Disney have scent sprayers installed in bushes in their parks to give ‘smell cues’ to visitors.


When someone gives you something, like a gift, or even just a slice of pizza from their plate, what do you feel? Do you just go on with life, or do you suddenly feel the urge to pay them back? To repay their generosity in kind?

This is something called the reciprocity principle. It’s a powerful instinct for all humans and gives us this strong sense of obligation to do something back for them. And since reciprocity rarely happens immediately, we’re then indebted to the person or company that has given us the free thing. It’s such a strong rule of behaviour that social and cultural scientists have witnessed its effects in vastly different cultures around the world. In fact, scientists have yet to find a culture that doesn’t practice this rule.

Of course, customers who try your free samples aren’t really obligated to do anything for you. But they feel as though they are, which means if you were to make a request of them later (like positioning a ‘buy now’ sign or sticker on your products), they’re much more likely to take action to balance the scales. It’s one of the most powerful conversion tools there is, and all it costs you is a mouthful of product.

Triggering Cravings

Of course, we can’t forget the fact that food sampling isn’t just giving away anything – it’s giving away food. And food isn’t just something we need to survive. It’s something we crave. This simple fact can have a huge impact on the customer, and your success as a brand.

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely says:

‘Free samples can make forgotten cravings become more salient. What samples do is give you a particular desire for something. If I gave you a tiny bit of chocolate, all of a sudden it would remind you about the exact taste of chocolate and would increase your craving.’

It’s no surprise then that food sampling, something that taps into all 5 of our senses, ignites a very real and natural response from our bodies. It starts a craving, and cravings demand to be satiated. Be honest, if you walked downstairs and smelt bacon cooking, and heard it sizzling in the pan, wouldn’t you want to grab a plate and dig in? Getting a small taste of something delicious doesn’t just satisfy our tastebuds – as soon as the mouthful is swallowed your brain is crying out for more. It wants more of that dopamine hit you’ve just given to it, making you feel happy and encouraging you to eat more. Since more is often not an option at that moment, the next option for your brain is to impulse purchase the product so that you can have it again.

customers enjoying free samples

customers enjoying free samples

The human brain is a very powerful thing, and with a little know-how and the right tools, food and drink brands can use that to their advantage. Food sampling is a fantastic way to harness all of these psychological principles and build customer loyalty, spread your message and give your sales a huge boost at the same time. At Fizz we’re experts in all things experiential marketing and good sampling. If you’d like to know more about what we do, and how we use these principles when doing demos, just get in touch to book your free consultation.