In a Digital World, Why Do Hard Copies Remain Alluring?

By Lacy Schley | October 27, 2017 11:16 am


Do you prefer a paperback or hardback to a download on your Kindle? Or maybe BluRays and CDs instead of MP4s? You’re not alone.

Digital products might help us combat clutter, and satisfy that need for instant gratification, but when push comes to shove, a lot of people still prefer something they can hold in their hands. And sales for physical goods like books and movies seem to support that notion. So if digital is so much easier to store and tote around, what gives?

“When something like a photograph or a music album is turned into a digital file, many people had a hunch that it somehow loses some of its subjective value,” says Ozgun Atasoy, a postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Basel in Switzerland. To investigate this hunch, he and his research partner, Carey K. Morewedge, a marketing professor at Boston University, ran a series of experiments they published earlier this month.

First, they set up a scenario where 86 tourists at Boston’s Old North Church (of “one if by land, two if by sea” fame) each had their photo taken with an actor dressed as Paul Revere. These people were informed they could pay as much as they’d like for the snapshot and that the money would go to charity. Half immediately got a physical print. The other half were immediately emailed a digital version of the image. The team also had the tourists estimate how much they thought each image cost to produce. It turned out, even when people figured the digital and physical pictures cost about the same, participants who got a physical keepsake of their run-in with Mr. Revere were willing to pay more for it.

But, as the kids say:


The team set up a second experiment, testing how much people were willing to shell out for physical and digital copies of the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the movie The Dark Knight. But this time, participants also rated how much they’d feel like they’d actually own their theoretical purchases. Roughly 400 people recruited off the Amazon Mechanical Turk website weighed in, and again, the crowd valued hard copies more than digital. That’s because, as indicated by their survey responses like “I feel like I own it” and “feel like it’s mine,” their psychological sense of ownership was higher with physical goods.

Responses from even more scenarios were in line with this sense of ownership result. In one, Ozgun and Morewedge found that when volunteers were told they would just be renting copies of physical and digital goods, their inclination to put a higher price tag on the tangible items disappeared.

“That strengthened our belief that feeling of ownership is a key factor when the value of digital goods is concerned,” Ozgun notes. In another, people who strongly identified with the movie The Empire Strikes Back were more willing to pay for a hard copy than people who didn’t identify with it. And since, according to the authors, having a personal connection with something is more likely to lead to a sense of psychological ownership over it, these results fit in nicely with their other findings.

Drilling down even further, the duo set up one last experiment (phew) to determine the underpinnings of why people seemed to feel ownership over, and thus more highly value, physical goods. They figured people more inclined to shell out extra for something tangible — this time, another popular book — would also test high on measures of desire for control. Yet again, people were more amenable to spending more on a paper copy than an ebook. And those most willing to fork over additional dollars scored highest on tests for need for control, agreeing with statements like “I prefer being able to set the pace of my tasks” and “I prefer having control over what I do and the way I do it.”

Knowing why people are okay with spending extra on physical media might not seem that important at first blush, but Ozgun says understanding this behavior can lead to changes in how we market these goods. Now, he says, “we can start thinking about … helping people imagine digital objects as physical objects, creating technologies that simulate touch, facilitating a sense of control by means other than touch.”

And in the grand scheme of things, electronic media not only helps us downsize, it also helps us keep our planet clean. So the next time you’re tempted to toss those BluRays or hardbacks in your shopping cart, resist your instincts and try going digital.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology
  • Uncle Al

    Hardcopy has no repeated paywall, requires no viewing infrastructure, cannot be centrally altered or erased, persists for centuries. Digital is no better than its temporal degradation, its players’ obsolescence, and a wall socket. Digital means “history has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”( George Orwell)

    • Really

      Damn, I never thought I would be up-voting you.

      • Uncle Al

        You have engaged intellectual puberty.

  • OWilson

    Amazing how much simple human predilections and propensity confound today’s “researchers”.

    Books can be displayed on bookshelves, and might have value to a collector. They are physical entities, like stamps which can be placed in stamp albums, and perhaps gain value. Vinyl record albums with artistic covers have a huge following.

    Digital versions of the above may be more perfect, but physical objects satisfy the human tactile senses.

    It’s still hard to convert an office to “paperless”, because folks like to cling on to “originals” of what they consider important documents :)

    • Nom de Plume

      Companies cling to originals, particularly signed originals, due the the ability to alter electronic versions. Of course, this could be handled by signing the electronic version with public key encryption, but the public hasn’t seemed to caught on to using this sort of thing, and then there’s the issue of verifying the public key.

      • OWilson

        The other issue is the inherent distrust of cyberspace.

        It used to be the older, less technical part of society that didn’t trust computers with their personal stuff, but the opposite is true today!

        Now, the more computer literate you are the less you trust the Web, and the more careful you are.

        Click bait is now aimed at the great unwashed out there!

  • Nom de Plume

    Something not mentioned is that there is not a significant price spread between hard copy and ebooks and disk and files. In some cases, you pay more for the e-version than the tangible. Customers recognize that there is less overhead in producing an e-version, and look at the prices as over inflated – and rightly so.

    The question, then, is what is the perceived fair worth of electronic vs. tangible versions. If that point is less than zero, then it indicates a preference for the tangible. But if it’s, say, 25% of the tangible’s price, just to pull an number out of thin air, then the issue is the perceived fair value of each.

    • OWilson

      There’s always been something tangible about “curling up with a good book”.

      And a good, leather bound book is a pleasure to behold, and to display with it’s brothers and sisters in a bookshelf, to your guests.

      It’s a civilized conversation starter, about real and important ideas, not the empty gossip about the latest “Life with the Kardashians” episode, or the latest Hollywood blow up redux!

      Not cool, very old fashioned, but immensely satisfying!

    • chad hatten Albuquerque

      well stated

  • chad hatten Albuquerque

    Great article, well researched

    • Dana

      Poor article that’s left several considerations out.

  • Rick Nicolls

    Hardcopy has the illusion (?) of permanence. Do we expect that someone a thousand years from now can recover a digital file from a USB key found in a cave, or is it more likely that a printed book be recoverable? Digital storage hasn’t stood the test of time, particularly when we haven’t found a format, either magnetic or optical, that lasts more than a few decades. Cloud storage? Even less tangible, and certainly not something that we can find in a cave.

    • Dana

      Cloud storage isn’t actual clouds. It’s someone else’s hard drive whose storage space you are renting. Not that that makes it any better than anything else you’ve mentioned.

  • Dana

    As usual, someone attempts to assess the ecological correctness of digital without taking into account where the hardware comes from.

    To make paper, you pulp up some plant matter and let it dry. That’s it. You don’t even need metal to do it, you could do it with rocks. Ink is a bit trickier, but not by much; the simplest inks can still be made from substances like walnut stain, berry juice, and charcoal. Most of that stuff grows back given enough time and patience. (It’s a myth that you must make paper from trees. ANY fibrous plant matter will probably do.)

    To make a computer, you have to drill for oil and mine for minerals, with their attendant risks of oil spill and physical degradation of the land. You are probably also exploiting worker populations and cheating customers to some extent. Not to mention everything you have to disturb on land to set up an electrical infrastructure and broadband internet. Because using a computer on the internet is never about just one computer.

    I wonder sometimes if people are capable of thinking anymore.

  • Dana

    Something else no one seems to want to take into consideration with computers and the internet and the way we’re letting them take over *everything* we do is that we are physical beings and we need to engage physically with the world around us for optimum mental health. Even with reading being a sedentary activity your body and brain will get more benefit from holding a book and turning its pages than they will from staring at a screen and touching it occasionally. I think most of the people defending digital would sympathize with the transhumanist movement or “singularity” ideology if they knew what that was. These are people who despise physicality and look forward to the day when we can just upload our minds into the cloud. Too many sci-fi movies, not enough experience in real life and unfortunately they’re in a privileged position to influence public policy eventually.


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