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The psychology behind why we value physical objects over digital

24 October 2017

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 Researchpresents 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.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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