You Will Never Love Your E-Reader
There's a reason we value physical goods more than digital ones
BY Luke O'Neil | Nov 21, 2017 | Culture
Try this thought experiment: Imagine your house is burning down and you've got a few minutes to save something. What's it going to be? Is it the framed photo of your wedding? How about a family heirloom? If you're a music or literary type, it could be a few cherished albums or books that have sentimental value. It probably won't be your e-reader, however, or the computer where you stream all your digital photos and music. Chances are, you can always access them on another device later. And as a new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research finds, despite all of the advances in technology, and despite our increased reliance on our phones for consumption of media, people still value physical goods more than digital.
"There's this cache attached to physical goods that is perplexing from an economic standpoint," says Carey Morewedge, professor of marketing at the Boston University School of Business and one of the authors of the study. "The very feature that imbues digital goods with their unique abilities—their immateriality—is also what impairs our ability to develop a sense of ownership for them."
The ability to touch physical goods enables us to establish more of an identity-bond, creating ownership and value. That vinyl collection, in short, becomes a part of who we are in a way that a phone full of files does not.
"65 PERCENT OF AMERICANS REPORTED READING A PHYSICAL BOOK LAST YEAR, COMPARED TO 28 PERCENT FOR AN E-BOOK."
Sales trends across a variety of media reinforce this idea. Though streaming is the fastest growing market in music, digital sales dropped again in 2016, while vinyl sales increased again for the 11th straight year. In 2017, vinyl sales are projected to near $1 billion, a far cry from the heyday of the 1980s, but the highest of the millennium. Meanwhile, sales of e-readers declined over 40 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the number of Americans who reported reading a physical book last year was at 65 percent, compared to only 28 percent for an e-book.
"I have all these old records, and I still think they have greater value than the electronic files in my phone," says Morewedge. "We were curious about this idea."
He and his team set out to find out why, and whether if you control for outside influencing factors—the idea that digital goods cost less to reproduce, or that they might be sold at a lower price—if people show the same preference. In one experiment, they asked tourists visiting the historic Old North Church in Boston if they would like to have their photo taken with an actor dressed as Paul Revere. Half of the group were emailed a digital copy of the photo, and half were given an instantly-developed Polaroid-style picture, and then asked to make a donation to the historical society that runs the church. Even controlling for the tourists' estimation of what the production cost of the photo would be—the actor's salary, the cost of the camera, and so on—people paid 54 percent more for the physical photo than the digital one.
Elsewhere, they asked people how much they were willing to pay for either a physical or digital copy of books and movies like Harry Potter and The Dark Knight. Once again, people assigned a higher value to physical copies than digital ones. Further solidifying the idea of identifying with the goods, people who said they were bigger fans of a particular series—Star Wars, for example—were more likely to pay more for an Empire Strikes Back DVD than one from a series they didn't particularly care about, such as The Godfather or James Bond films.
"The more people are Star Wars fans, the more they show this effect," Morewedge says. "Hardcore fans differentiated between a physical and digital copy, but people who didn't like Star Wars more than the other series don't show the effect."
The takeaway is that the idea of physiological ownership is contingent on seeing yourself and the good being associated. "If it's something you really care about, it's much easier to form that connection," says Morewedge.
"IF IT'S SOMETHING YOU REALLY CARE ABOUT, IT'S MUCH EASIER TO FORM THAT CONNECTION."
Since we never fully interact with our digital goods, that bond fails to develop. Designers have actually adapted to this. Some of the software we use, such as the bookshelf display on iBooks, applies a concept called skeuomorphism, which tries to mimic the psychological associations we have when interacting with the physical world.
"It seems like this idea of controlling things really has an influence on people's feelings of ownership," Morewedge says. It also suggests why we may not feel anywhere near as badly about pirating a season of Game of Thrones as we would walking into a store and stealing a box of Blu-rays, a hunch the team is following up on in a related study.
"People have a desire to control their environment," says Morewedge. "That greater control over physical reduces risk and reduces uncertainty, which imbues it with greater value."
So go ahead, grab a few of those books or records on the way out the door, if, god forbid, you ever are forced to choose. It makes sense, after all. You're saving a part of yourself.