Stated simply, it’s easier to develop meaningful feelings of ownership over a physical entity than a digital one. By Christian Jarrett
When technological advances paved the way for digital books, films and music, many commentators predicted the demise of their physical equivalents. It hasn’t happened, so far at least. For instance, while there is a huge market in e-books, print books remain dominant. A large part of the reason comes down to psychology – we value things that we own, or anticipate owning, in large part because we see them as an extension of ourselves. And, stated simply, it’s easier to develop meaningful feelings of ownership over a physical entity than a digital one. A new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research presents a series of studies that demonstrate this difference. “Our findings illustrate how psychological ownership engenders a difference in the perceived value of physical and digital goods, yielding new insights into the relationship between consumers and their possessions,” the researchers said.
In an initial study at a tourist destination, Ozgun Atasoy and Carey Morewedge arranged for 86 visitors to have their photograph taken with an actor dressed as a historical character. Half the visitors were given a digital photo (emailed to them straight away), the others were handed a physical copy. Then they were asked how much they were willing to pay, if anything, for their photo, with the proceeds going to charity. The recipients of a physical photo were willing to pay more, on average, and not because they thought the production costs were higher.
It was a similar story when Atasoy and Morewedge asked hundreds of American volunteers on the Amazon Mechanical Turk survey website to say what they would be willing to pay for either physical or digital versions of the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and physical or digital versions of the movie Dark Knight. The participants placed higher monetary value on the physical versions, and this seemed to be because they expected to have a stronger sense of ownership for them (for the physical versions, they agreed more strongly with statements like “I will feel like I own it” and “feel like it is mine”). In contrast, participants’ anticipated enjoyment was the same for the different versions and so can’t explain the higher value placed on physical.
In further studies, the researchers showed that participants no longer placed higher value on physical objects over digital when they would be renting rather than buying – presumably because the greater appeal of owning something physical is irrelevant in this case. Likewise, the researchers found that participants who identified strongly with a particular movie (The Empire Strikes Back) placed higher value on owning a physical copy versus digital, but participants who had no personal connection with the film did not. This fits the researchers’ theorising because the greater sense of ownership afforded by a physical product is only an enticing prospect when there’s a motivation to experience a strong sense of connection with it.
If it is a greater psychological sense of ownership that makes physical objects so appealing, then the researchers reasoned that people disposed with more “need for control” will be particularly attracted to them – after all, to own something is to control it. Atasoy and Morewedge found some support for this in their final study. The higher that participants scored on a “need for control scale” (they agreed with items like “I prefer doing my own planning”), the more than they tended to say that physical books would engender a greater sense of ownership, and, in turn, this was associated with their being willing to pay a higher amount for them, compared with digital.
The findings have some intriguing interesting implications for companies seeking to boost the appeal of digital products, the researchers said. Any interventions that might engender a greater psychological sense of ownership over digital entities will likely boost their value – such as allowing for personalisation or being able to interact with them in some way. Similarly, the results may help explain the ubiquity of digital piracy – because people generally place a lower value on digital products (even when they see the production costs as the same physical) it follows that many of us consider the theft of digital products as less serious than physical theft.