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.