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The behavioral economics of free software

People who use and promote free software cite various reasons for their choice, but do those reasons tell the whole story? If, as a community, we want free software to continue to grow in popularity, especially in the mainstream, we should understand better the true reasons for choosing it—especially our own.

Some believe that it offers higher quality, that the availability of source code results in a better product with higher reliability. Although it’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison of software, there are certainly instances where free software components have been judged superior to their proprietary counterparts. I’m not aware of any comprehensive analysis of the general case, though, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence on both sides of the debate.

Others prefer it for humanitarian reasons, because it’s better for society or brings us closer to the world we want to live in. These are more difficult to analyze objectively, as they are closely linked to the individual, their circumstances and their belief system.

For developers, a popular reason is the possibility of modifying the software to suit their needs, as enshrined in the Free Software Foundation’s freedom 1. This is reasonable enough, though the practical value of this opportunity will vary greatly depending on the software and circumstances.

The list goes on: cost savings, educational benefits, universal availability, social rewards, etc.

The wealth of evidence of cognitive bias indicates that we should not take these preferences at face value. Not only are human choices seldom rational, they are rarely well understood even by the human themselves. When asked to explain our preferences, we often have a ready answer—indeed, we may never run out of reasons—but they may not withstand analysis. We have many different ways of fooling ourselves with regard to our own past decisions and held beliefs, as well as those of others.

Behavioral economics explores the way in which our irrational behavior affects economies, and the results are curious and subtle. For example, the riddle of experience versus memory (TED video), or the several examples in “The Marketplace of Perception” (Harvard Magazine article). I think it would be illuminating to examine free software through this lens, and consider that the vagaries of human perception may have a very strong influence on our choices.

Some questions for thought:

  • Does using free software make us happier? If so, why? If not, why do we use it anyway?
  • Do we believe in free software because we have a great experience using it, or because we feel good about having used it? (Daniel Kahneman explains the difference)
  • Why do we want other people to use free software? Is it only because we want them to share our preference, or because we will benefit ourselves, or do we believe they will appreciate it for their own reasons?

If you’re aware of any studies along these lines, I would be interested to read about them.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 25, 2010 at 10:42

28 Responses

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  1. Interesting post.

    For the questions…

    1. Free software makes me happier first of all because the better alternatives I have found in comparison to the proprietary solutions that make me more productive, also the “free” gives me the chance to try different types of software and choose the better for me without thinking about money or having the disadvantages of trial software.
    I have still my concerns about supported hardware and games but I can understand why these two fields are still problematic.
    There is too much work to be done at least for having lists of supported hardware so free software users can buy the supported hardware only and “boycott” the unsupported.

    2. The same as the first point it’s the great experience when I’m using ubuntu to be specific for me it’s superior to anything I have used till now, I was a windows user and I have used MacOS X for some time.

    3. The first reason for me is that a big community would make the hardware vendors and the game companies to take linux more seriously, Another thing is that I like to share my great experience with others.


    May 25, 2010 at 12:12

  2. Nice article, and here are my answers-
    1. Yes, it makes me happier, I’ve never loved my computer before when I used to use proprietary software.
    2. I feel very nice when I’m using GNU/Linux, I use it, and will use it.
    3. I have the view that its not necessary that everyone _must_ use free software. If they will benefit from the freedom and choices, they should.

    Shantanu Tushar

    May 25, 2010 at 12:57

  3. 1. It doesn’t necessarily make me happy, but it does give me a sense of mastery. Especially since all problems should be solvable by yourself, or you should be able to know why something doesn’t work. Since I’ve started using it, I feel like I have a greater understanding how my computer works and what I can potentially do with it

    2. Reflecting the point in (1) I think that the experience of using it is more important, as that is the learning phase of working with linux, but it feels good when you’ve solved some problem or gotten it to work just the way you want.

    3. Because I think that Linux gives a better opportunity to understand how software works and it makes you think critically about what you want to use your computer for. Most people don’t seem to consider this very deeply, and it really doesn’t matter what answer you end up with as long as you’ve thought about it.


    May 25, 2010 at 13:01

  4. I tend to subscribe to the “yay I can modify it” reason. I was asked in a job interview once if I prefer FOSS for practical reasons or philosophical reasons. I kind of boggled. I find the philosophy to be very practical!

    Something I think you missed is the community, though. Celeste and I were interviewed about why we work on FOSS, and while most of what we said was cut (from 2hr to 30s!), one of the things that came up the fact that while you might start out in FOSS to get practice with programming or because there’s this one bug… it’s not why you (not “you”-Matt, but “you”-general) stay. You stay because by the time you’ve fixed a couple bugs, you’ve also likely made a lot of friends. The vast majority of my friends are Free Software people, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.


    May 25, 2010 at 13:54

    • This is definitely a popular reason for choosing free software. It wasn’t my intention to catalog motivators, only to provide some examples to illustrate the variety. I did mention this one in passing though (“social rewards”).

      Matt Zimmerman

      May 25, 2010 at 14:02

      • It is an interesting post, and some studies of this should probably be done. I’m planning a push on my campus to see if I can get fellow students to adopt ubuntu for their laptops and netbooks that are currently running XP or Vista, it is hard to get them to move from Windows 7. In that context I would emphasise a couple of neat features, and offer some support of greater problems myself.

        Features to emphasise:
        1) MeMenu and the intergration of comm in the system, specifically the “people nearby” feature of empathy, which is pure genuis.
        2) It being a platform that is usable, and that you can modify to look the way you want. Most people don’t need super function etc, they need something stable and usable, specifically that you can get the apps you need and you can connect to the network on campus.
        3) For netbooks I will emphasise the fact that you have an OS that is built for running on them, instead of a chunky and impractical XP.


        May 25, 2010 at 14:42

  5. I think one important argument pro open source is missing:

    Open source software prevents or weakens monopolies in the IT industry, it gives people the choice.

    As an example, Apple could have never developed Safari in such a relatively short time frame without leveraging the good work done by the KHTML people.

    Now that Apple is more and more becoming evil, Google can leverage the work done by the Webkit people at Apple and in the community, to quickly build a competing product.

    That’s healthy for the IT industry and a great benefit for the users.

    (Maybe this argument can be subsumed under the “better for the society” argument, but I think it deserves to be named explicitly.)


    May 25, 2010 at 16:03

  6. for me it’s very simple: if people seek to control instead of collaborate, by not providing source code, I want NOTHING to do with them, regardless of code quality.

    it really is that simple. i somehow feel… “dirty” by exposing myself to an application where the authors _deliberately_ witheld the source code in order to either get control over the users and/or to force them to pay money.

    however: i am not stupid. i am realistic. i take a _preference_ for software where i know that the contributors are collaborating and building on the shoulders of former contributors, through having direct access to the source code.

    i then work my way down through pragmatic and practical realistic choices. if there is no other ubiquitous choice of VoIP software, i move to the best-available non-free choice (Skype). if there is no way to decode certain types of films using entirely unencumbered software, i ignore the stupidity surrounding patents and go grab a codec, starting of course with those which have a free software implementation and moving downwards at the absolute last resort to binary proprietary implementations. so i install adobe flash player, as swfdec and gnash are simply not up to the job. etc. etc.

    so it’s a kinda funny mix, for me.

    Luke Leighton

    May 25, 2010 at 17:34

  7. p.s. matt, this discussion – and the replies – is the sort of thing that really really should be given a higher priority. have you considered posting it as an article somewhere – if it requires moderation and/or is refused have you considered posting it on advogato.org?

    Luke Leighton

    May 25, 2010 at 17:37

    • This blog is syndicated to advogato, and the corresponding link is http://advogato.org/person/mdz/diary/12.html if you’re interested in discussing it there (comments are unmoderated here).

      If someone is interested in having me write a more in-depth piece on a freelance basis, they can contact me. This is all I’ve had the time to write on this topic so far.

      Matt Zimmerman

      May 25, 2010 at 18:40

      • matt, hi,

        i was thinking more along the lines of a verbatim post on the article page: the diary page is somewhat useless in engaging peoples’ attention.

        the importance of advogato articles is often underestimated: many computer science students have contacted me to say thank you.

        if you do not have time to post as an article i would be happy to do so on your behalf, making sure that it is attributed to you.


        Luke Leighton

        May 25, 2010 at 19:19

  8. I consider wasting time a terrible thing; I work in Free Software because I hate reinventing the wheel, particularly when other people have already done so and just won’t share their solution. I want to solve *new* problems on the edge of what we know how to do, and I can’t do that if I first have to re-invent what others have already done just to get to that point.

    As for wanting other people to use Free Software, I primarily care about how much Free Software exists, and whether non-free software continues to exist; I want more people to use Free Software so that it becomes the expected norm and proprietary software becomes the increasingly rare exception.


    May 25, 2010 at 17:49

  9. Free software gets fixed faster.


    May 26, 2010 at 04:20

  10. this is an off-the-cuff response – will look at the references later – but probably one of the main reasons i use/follow/preach/evangelise Linux is that it opens up the world of IT for poorer people who would not otherwise have fair access to it or the knowledge-base that goes with using the internet. Being someone from Africa (South Africa, where we have excellent Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Edubuntu orientated activities going -see our webpage: ubuntu-za), I experience the lack of access to the knowledge which OSS opens up among the people of Africa, as crippling – especially amongst the multitude of youngsters who have VERY little exposure to PC’s or often none at all until a very later age in their upbringing. Keep in mind that the majority of Africa’s population is under 25 (50%+) to understand the importance of this lack of access to affordable knowledge. OSS such as Ubuntu opens up the knowledge-base world on two important fronts – free software of good quality without the dark threat of copy-write issues or illegil pirated software on the one hand and Ubuntu also provides software which makes older – sometimes very old – PC’s still work. Very, very many of Africa’s youths just cannot afford even the basic cost of access to the internet – as they do not own or have the possibility to own an own PC and definitely do not have the money (often because of having no job after leaving school) to surf the internet (unemployment rated officially around 30%, but practically often as high as 40-50% and even higher in rural areas). Foss provides an alternative to the money-based world of knowledge, which is why I push for it as hard as possible (and use it myself in my small business even though I sometimes struggle to make it work for me, not having any technical know-how and can afford the best of commercial stuff). Foss is the way to go for me in such a world.

    Rusty Beukes

    May 26, 2010 at 04:57

  11. Hello,

    1. I would like to add a thought: I am doing scientific research. Being able to check equations in the code or to reproduce scientific results of other people without needing “black box software # 37” is fundamental.

    2. I also think that open source software provides an hypothetic control on technology and give people the possibility to build communities or services with greater freedom.

    3. widespread FOSS = available advice from other people, more bug reports, more hardware support, more developers …


    May 26, 2010 at 10:01

  12. I switched from proprietary software (guess which brand) to free, because even though I paid for the software it wasn’t mine. I only purchased a license to use it under very restrictive conditions. The free software was given to me and now it really is mine to do with as I wish. I can’t believe more people don’t embrace this concept.


    May 27, 2010 at 00:38

  13. I really enjoy using my Kubuntu computer. I have had few problems, and most of them were due to my ignorance, which was quickly and kindly corrected by another member of the community.
    I have marveled many times at the ease with which I complete tasks in Linux that seemed either impossible or expensive on Windows.
    I evangelize Free Software because I have found it to be of high quality and because I have no fear that the other person cannot afford it. I also promote it because, like knowledge, I can give Free Software away without diminishing my supply.

    To tell the truth, I started using Linux for day-to-day work by accident. My at-the-time primary Windows computer completely died on me one day, and the only other computer I had was my netbook, with a fresh Kubuntu install. I’d intended it only as an experiment, but it became my primary computer for about a month. Linux performed flawlessly and I doubt I would have been able to do as much if I had left Windows XP on the thing. When my other computer was fixed, I decided I didn’t need Windows anymore and went all Linux. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

    E.T. Anderson

    May 27, 2010 at 01:22

  14. I once read an article “It’s the applications, Fool!” I think that is part of the answer. We only need the OS to launch the applications. We want to launch the applications in an easy way. And we need some hardware features (network, graphics, etc) to work in these applications.

    In a Microsoft world, everything is locked up. People depend on illegal software, because they cannot (or don’t want to) pay the full price for software. Which in turn enables the distribution of viruses and other mallware. This is causing users to load up their computer with protection software. Which in turn reduces their computing performance.

    In search for free software, people discover open source software. Free of mallware and viruses. And free in price. And legal to download (although this is not a concern for many users). One day, you decide; if I am only working with open source software, why not switch to Linux completely? After migrating they discover a huge amount of really great and free software. And they want to tell the world!


    May 27, 2010 at 16:59

  15. Most pecularities are because of people approaching software as a physical thing.

    And research the impact of the understanding of a program and it’s data. People don’t understand these things.

    And for the record. Human Intelligence is spatially-based. It records actions based on arrangements in space (and on a time scale).
    This is the reason people don’t get the distinction between a file format and the actual program easily. When they see the files, they see the logo of the program. When they open the files, they see the program with the thing in.

    I have seen weak I in people.
    You’re actually going to find the limit of people’s Intelligence and bump up to some strange limitation of the Human Intelligence.

    Maybe it will be very interesting to compare these results with AI and AI-models.

    I had my first encounter when I needed to edit a document but hadn’t MS Office. My brother told me about OpenOffice.org that was downloadable. This was a very easy solution. I read it was free and open source. After seeing it could edit documents I got very interested. I read about the problems of proprietary software vendor-lock in.
    I knew how a computer and software interacts generally and immediatelly realized the importance of formats over programs.
    I also think it’s very unethical for formats to be closed. That’s why I’m campaigning for FLO-Formats more than FLOSS-software.

    Now I’m studying something in IT and see many flaws in people’s behaviour. Including the spectacular behaviour of an weak I-like behaviour, but I have forgotten how it went.
    Maybe you’ll find good information of how far things go: http://www.wherestheanykey.co.uk/

    People go to a shop because that’s what they are used to. Every thing costs as much to make. Without education, they just don’t know that writing software and distributing are two totally different things.

    I’m waiting for the R300g project for solid drivers.
    Then I’ll migrate to Ubuntu/Zenwalk/?Fedora/?GoboLinux

    I check everything, see from where it comes and if it’s free. Ubuntu has awfully lot mono in it.
    And Linux has a few flaws that are very difficult.
    The directory structure is one of them.

    The reason now for mee to use FLOSS is because:
    -0$ software doesn’t costs.
    – have found very-high quality like vlc media player that really plays almost anything natively without polluting the system with things as DirectShow Filters. Much more than the proprietary WMP and iTunes natively. Find it very good, safe solution. Codec packs messed up my DirectShow filters a few times. Or take 7-zip with it’s better compression and in windows super-handy entry in the rigt-click menu.
    They are just better than the competition for what I do.

    – I’m confortable with mandating a solution to someone that doesn’t costs money to buy.

    – I know the values of Open Source but I don’t find them as consumer very valuable. I more care about it and find it valuable me and other people cna learn. Maybe I’ll contribute to some projects.
    (I’m thinking about a few small things for a project.)

    – I know it can be perfected. I know how software is made and it can be made professionalANDadvancedANDuser-friendly all in one. This is possible and easier to achieve with Open Source where there are many developers with great ideas. Check out Celestia and it’s forum to see a great community. Sure, it might not be very big, this is however no problem. The community has a rich variety of contributors from expert astronomers to 3d-artist. And many people with good ideas like you can go search in the development and feature request in celestia users part of the forum.


    May 29, 2010 at 18:09

  16. I have tried Ubuntu before.
    I’m a purist about containing information.
    If someone says a codec can do HD.
    I say: “Yeah, but here is the only thing that matters. Can it do lossless? And how good is the compression of that?” Mostly they stare with a very what-the-…-are-you-talking-about puzzled looking face.


    May 29, 2010 at 18:18

  17. The advanced+user-friendly thing:
    I saw Inkscape was very advanced.
    Now I can find my way around the user-interface very easily and see how it’s a marvel of user-friendlyness and functionality. Blender should take this as example.

    * Does using free software make us happier? If so, why? If not, why do we use it anyway?

    See my previous post and yes it makes me happy because it works.

    * Do we believe in free software because we have a great experience using it, or because we feel good about having used it? (Daniel Kahneman explains the difference)

    See my previous post
    I know why FLOSS software doesn’t have to cost a lot/works very good and/or better than the proprietary/paying/non-free-alternatives. I feel good because it works, this doesn’t determine my feelings in a production environment when I don’t try out software. Then it’s the production results of me that matter and not the software, if the software doesn’t works it makes me angry FLOSS or not aside.
    I believe in it because it’s here and see the benefits of it for me. I’ll rather pay 300 to let an open-source program add functionality that I want then use it to buy licences. Pragmatic thinking.

    * Why do we want other people to use free software? Is it only because we want them to share our preference, or because we will benefit ourselves, or do we believe they will appreciate it for their own reasons?

    Because I want everybody to use the (free/libre/ope) FLO-formats and know how companies use proprietary/secret/closed formats as a lever to force ridiculous high prices and monopolies without producing useful software. (MS shouldn’t have removed support for versioning and Pre2007 mathematical word formats)
    See also my previous posts about FLO-formats. (And the same counts for standards in general. e.g. protocols)


    May 29, 2010 at 18:27

  18. My reasons for using free software:

    1. I got tired of having to buy expensive software, just to find later that the author has changed the file format and made my version incompatible with the new version so that I can not share my data. The arrogance of expecting the user to keep on buying the same expensive software every few years just to keep of with trivial changes – I’m done with it.

    2. There are many OSS that are as good if not better than commercial software.

    3. I’ve had it with playing the license and activation game. Being treated like a pirate by default makes me dislike my computing environment.

    4. Having to look for damn device drivers. Most popular devices are all supported in the Linux kernel. Installing a PC has never been so easy and fast (if you carefully choose the right hardware).

    5. Flexibility. Writing code for an OSS platform is a joy, with so much code available to borrow coding ideas from.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop here. I just love the OSS spirit. If only wish that human societies would look at the wonderful benefits of the spirit of the community and the spirit of sharing.

    Peace, man…


    June 2, 2010 at 11:28

  19. It’s all compiz, man. XD


    June 2, 2010 at 11:49

  20. 1. Yes it makes me happier on many levels. Primarily as both an administrator and programmer I can modify for local use or send changes back upstream. Initially I would say I wanted a Unix at home (1995, a popular reason at the time) but now I have to argue that has morphed into needing the power, flexibility and community support both at work and home. I am loathe to argue that community support is any worse (software wise) than vendor. In my experience (I have worked with Dell, Redhat, IBM, HP and EMC) community support is better. I also enjoy the customization but as a software maker I think this puts me in a minority compared to the planet.
    2. This question is related to 1 really :)
    I firmly believe in software darwinism. The BSD TCPIP code (which is what early Microsoft systems used like everyone else) is living proof that something which works well naturally bubbles to the top regardless. However, observation suggests that open source seems to be the best way to get high quality to the masses. The proof seems to be in the pudding. We see everyone taking more and more parts or whole implementations and using them for both commercial and non commercial implementations. Also, from a certain point of view, open source was inevitable, what was not clear was just how popular it would become.
    3. I recommend open source or subsets of it to others just to help them out. I can’t count the number of times people have said I need X or Y and there was an open source alternative (Openoffice, Firefox, and so on). I look at this as being more pragmatic than agenda but I suppose at the end of the day – they are the same thing.

    Jay Fink

    June 2, 2010 at 12:17

  21. […] Un alt articol interesant ce atinge filosofia open source: Economia comportamentanlă a software-ului liber. […]

  22. […] libre. Sin buscarlo demasiado, hace un par de días me encontré con este artículo de título: “The behavioral economics of free software”.  Todo sea dicho, ya de entrada llama la atención. En él, el autor se hace preguntas que los […]

  23. […] libre. Sin buscarlo demasiado, hace un par de días me encontré con este artículo de título: “The behavioral economics of free software”.  Todo sea dicho, ya de entrada llama la atención. En él, el autor se hace preguntas que los […]

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