The Psychological Reason We Value Physical more than Digital


That, in a nutshell, seems to be the reason that we instinctively place a higher value on physical goods versus digital, according to Christian Jarrett in Research Digest.

Jarrett cites studies that appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research that support this idea. “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 simpler terms, the researchers found that people placed a higher value on the physical versions of books, movies, photographs and other items than they did on the digital versions.

“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’),” Jarrett explains.

In an interesting twist, the research also shows that if someone it going to be renting (rather than buying) an object, they no longer placed that higher value on the physical, “presumably because the greater appeal of owning something physical is irrelevant in this case,” Jarrett notes.

The findings could be very useful for brands that are looking to boost the appeal of digital products.

“Any interventions that might engender a greater psychological sense of ownership over digital entities will likely boost their value – such as allowing for personalization or being able to interact with them in some way,” the researchers noted.

It could also 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.”

In our industry, this idea of “ownership” could also explain the higher cachet of a printed magazine, what we’ve called the velvet rope appeal and the credibility factor of print content marketing.

It makes perfect sense; physical objects are finite. They can’t go viral and be replicated a billion times. And this only adds to the value of owning it.