Why We’re Less Happy With Music Now Than Ever: The Paradox of Reversible Decisions

image from www.scot-wintech.com At their core, BitTorrent and LimeWire are a flight simulators, not a piracy machines. Their appeal is in their ability to let fans preview their music decisions, not solely because they enable fans to download music for free, without paying for it. That they don't buy the music once they have it is a consequence of the process, not the end result. Fans have always desired to hear music before they buy it. Too many have bought lackluster albums and felt burned. To this day, file-sharing remains the most hassle free, easy-to-use method of previewing music before it's bought.

Whether music is purchased through iTunes or a big-box retailer, the decision is irreversible. Once the music is on your computer or the plastic wrapping has been taking off the disc, it's yours. There's no returning it—no matter how bad the album is. Since music is an experience good, fans want to hear the music before they buy it. If they hear it enough times, they'll begin to like it, and maybe, they'll go out and buy it. That's the theory that radio promotion has worked on for decades. Trouble is, fans only got to hear a couple of songs when they were paying for a dozen or more. This meant that, while the songs that they heard may have been good, the rest could be rubbish. No one likes buying a bad album.

That means that they also made a bad decision. Granted, stores installed many listening posts and booths in stores, they only allowed for minimal previews. Just enough to get the gist of an album, but not enough to make an informed decision.

These days, it would be a hard argument to say more fans are using file-sharing programs to preview music than they are to avoid paying for it. But, if you think about it, file-sharing makes irreversible decisions reversible. At least in part, fans want protection from buying something that they didn't want as much as they want it for free. Umair Haque has referred to this practice as risk-sharing.

Decisions And Revisions

In a series of studies conducted at Harvard, Dan Gilbert gave some students a choice that was reversible and others a choice that was nonreversible.

From a set of fine art reproductions, students were allowed to choose one. What emerged from the findings was that those who had the option to change their minds ended up less satisfied with their choices than the students that didn't have that option. Students valued their ability to reverse their decisions, but had no idea that, by leaving the option open, they would diminish their satisfaction with the things they chose. When people make decisions that are viewed as nonreversible, they do a bit of psychological work that helps justify their decision.

If we're able to change our minds at any moment, thinking that there's a better choice to be made, we'll stress over the alternatives, rather than making do with what we have. On contrary, if we're stuck with something, we're more likely to search for and find a positive view of the decision we made. As Gilbert phrased it in his title Stumbling On Happiness, "It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience, which is why we love the clunker in the driveway, the shabby cabin that's been in the family for years, and Uncle Sheldon despite his passion for nasal spelunking."

So, the question arises now, what do art posters and students have in common with file-sharing and fans—who in many cases—are students? Do fans also overvalue the ability to change their minds about their music purchases and end up less satisfied with the songs that they download? Moreover, has the social epidemic of file-sharing led fans to view music purchases as reversible decisions?

And, with that shift in their mindset, have they ended up buying less music because they're no longer stuck with it and don't put in the needed mental work?

Stuck With It

As it turns out—yes. The thing is that when a fan buys an album from a store and the decision is irreversible, it forces them to like it, even if they actually don't.

When a fan is stuck with something, they find ways to like it. This effect is called adaption. When a fan downloads an album, they aren't trying to justify why they bought it; they're mostly looking for reasons why not to buy it, not why to buy it.

Fans are engaging in a different type of psychological work. When fans file-share music, they do so, because they want the ability to reverse the decision, to delete the album if they find out that they don't like it. As it turns out, the act of downloading the music may be the very reason that they don't like it as much.

Had they gone to the store and bought the album, viewing the decision as irreversible; they would've been happier with the music. Not because it is better, but because their minds made it better. No fan wants to be stuck with an album that they don't like. But as it turns out being stuck with it is what causes them to like it more. This is the paradox of reversible decisions. Like the students choosing the art poster, fans want and value the ability to change their minds, but they don't understand the conditions under which synthetic happiness grows.

Fans have no idea that file-sharing music and keeping the option open to change their mind—to buy the album later—is affecting their satisfaction with the album itself and causing them not to buy it. What this means too, is that those that do buy albums off iTunes, might be happier with their purchases, because they can't reverse their decisions and return all of those zeros and ones back to Apple.

File-sharing lets fans live with music—the decision itself—and determine if this album would be money well spent, or, if on the other hand, the money would be wasted. Fans want to protect themselves from buying something that they didn't want, but it may prevent them from buying it at all. Not because they are thieves, lacking morals, but because they now view their music decisions as reversible.

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  1. Really compelling article. It resonates on a couple of different levels. The radio which was free in the 60’s and 70’s repeated the songs often enough for us to develop the attachment and want to buy and own the song, And the radio was supported by the revenue of advertisers whose message was repeated enough to cause collateral demand. It still works pretty well for country stations whose followers still depend on FM. Other genres have suffered though.
    And I did very much resent having to buy an entire album just to get the one or two songs I liked from the radio. So iTunes has proven it’s value because I can buy the specific song I like. But it’s interesting to hear that file sharing has eroded the sense of satisfaction as well.

  2. This is a very long winded and pretentious way of saying that when people download music for free, some, if not much of the value is gone as well, because there was no investment. Uh, yeah.
    Bit Torrent isn’t a flight simulator. It’s a way of getting content (music, TV, movies, games, apps, software and more) without having to pay for it. That’s it. That’s not a judgment about it or against it. But at least let’s deal with reality and say what it is. Go on Pirate Bay and see how many times Microsoft Office has been d/l’d. In that case, people know exactly what they’re getting. They just would rather not pay for it if they don’t have to. Any other explanation is just not related to reality.
    This post is one long attempt at rationalizing the truth that people download music for free because it’s a way of acquiring more music without having to pay for it. That’s it. It’s simple. And when you make no investment in something – whether it be monetary, emotional, time, etc., value decreases.
    This is a simple matter. What is to be done about it is the challenge.

  3. Which is why streaming music solves both problems. Consumers hear the music first, but, if they really want to own it, and put it in their iPod or burn a CD, they will need to take the plunge and buy it, leading to the satisfaction you allude to. Now, five or ten years ago, previewing an album via illegal downloading may really have been the only way. But now, with streaming, that is no longer a legitimate excuse.

  4. This assumes that there is enough market saturation of legal alternatives and awareness among fans as to when they can and can’t expect to stream the albums they want to hear through these services.
    Almost every album on earth is available to stream on YouTube–in full, usually before it’s even released–where else?
    As well, most people learned how to file-share music with no strings attached before they did anything else–and haven’t had to find alternative means to play albums as the way through before they buy them.

  5. >Granted, stores installed many listening posts and booths in stores, they only allowed for minimal previews. Just >enough to get the gist of an album, but not enough to make an informed decision.
    Having spent countless hours and hours at the listening posts in CD stores during the 90s up until 30 second sound samples from each song that I could also listen to at home replaced being able to have a listen to the CD in its full sound quality, I must disagree with your notion that you could not get to know an album well enough to make an informed decision. Of course I could, because I spent enough time listening to the albums in question. Usually, I only buy an album if more than half of its tracks are good and some of them stick out as immediate hits. It still works this way for me with the 30 second streaming sound samples that the CD stores provide on their websites. It’s just that I refuse to buy non-physical formats a/k/a anything but CDs or CD-Rs because of the hassle it would be to archive them.
    I guess my mixtaper perspective of things is relatively different from yours, Kyle, after having read your posting about how you built your own music collection and why: whereas like you said there, you’ve been having fun presenting friends with your vast collection (that included music that you didn’t even like but knew others liked) to impress them with for the sake of self-promotion maybe, I’ve been having fun presenting friends with music they have never heard about for the sake of broadening their minds and promoting the music. These are two distincively different approaches to recorded music. Yours surely is better for being a music business blogger than mine 😉
    >Almost every album on earth is available to stream on YouTube–in full, usually before it’s even released–where else?
    Contrary to me, my girlfriend does not buy any music at all anymore but when she wants to listen to a song or a whole album, she finds it on youtube instead, simply because it’s free. Youtube most definitely is the Napster of the current era and the iTunes file sales business model does not stand a chance against free. Yet, youtube is owned by internet giant google and it does not look likely that the record labels could sue youtube out of business in the same way that they have done with file sharing organisations. Now that advertisers have been backing the pirates for a while, it seems obvious that the digital hitmaking business model is effectively dead.
    Physical CDs, on the other hand, are something special to those who like them, and will continue selling. It’s just that by ways of numerous promo campaigns, Apple and the digital community has decreased their coolness factor considerably and put it onto portable players sold by the electronics industry instead. Yet these portable players just do not provide their users with what music lovers (and mixtapers) like me really need (like full sound quality, liner notes) – just with what gadget lovers need.
    >The paradox of reversible decisions
    That was a very interesting read. Thank you. But I guess it’s less those people who try hard to make a decision to not buy an album that are helping to kill the content industry, but rather those who help sell advertising by not caring about if they get an incomplete product as long as its free.

  6. First, this was an interestig read! Its great to have different looks on social trending. So good job Kyle!
    However, P2P software is not a flight simulator. It is an argument agreed a downloaded album would not necessarily mean the purchase before. But this Freakonomics twist on how we’re like an harvard experiment is a bit much.
    Factors for the shift in consumption are simple. Quality of content, Ease of obtaining that content which ultimately effect how much we value that content. Its not some subconscious inability to not return music.
    A button clicks are hard to compete with. It’s all about the value added content now.

  7. Given the risks, why would they want to continue that behavior? Would it not be easy to unlearn the bad habit of file sharing, and stream instead, if your goal is just to hear what the album sounds like before purchasing? Also, consider that a lot of the original file sharers were college students. Fast forward a decade, haven’t they grown up a bit, and are more concerned about engaging in an unlawful and potentially risky activity when there are now better alternatives? I would add My Space Music to a site where you can freely stream many albums, but at the very least several songs from an album.

  8. Over 37,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2008. “Given the risks, why would they want to continue that behavior?”
    But hey, if you want to emphasize the criminality of music fans, I’m all for that.
    What I’m hearing is, “Why won’t those consumers behave the way I want?” Because they are free agents capable of making choices. They’ve made a consumer choice: they have decided the legal options suck, pretty much all of them, compared to file sharing.

  9. Unlike driving a car, file sharing copyrighted material on the internet is illegal. It is risky in that the internet never forgets, and the file sharer could get in trouble. It is risky in that there is no guarantee as to the sound quality of these files. It is risky in that the file sharer’s $1,000 computer could become full of viruses and no longer function just so the file sharer could download a $10 album — talk about a lousy rate of return on risk.
    I don’t *want* the consumer to do anything. I am just a lowly consumer myself. I am just trying to understand why in 2010 file sharing is necessary to preview new releases, when that music can be found for streaming RISK FREE elsewhere on the internet. Of course, if the point is to get the album for free & never pay for music, well, that’s a different topic than this post.

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