Antje Cockrill surveyed 241 people (mostly students aged 18 to 25) about their digital music player and their life satisfaction. Seventy-seven per cent of the sample were iPod owners, with the remainder owning non-Apple brands of music player. The participants were asked how much they liked the design of their music player; whether they judged others by their playlists (or felt judged); whether they felt a bond with others who own the same brand of player; whether they felt their player was "cool"; whether, if they owned an iPod, they attended iParties (where playlists are shared and iPods compared); and whether they used their music player to create a private, "auditory bubble".
Answers to these questions were entered into an analysis alongside age, gender and employment status and the take-home finding is that for iPod owners, nearly 25 per cent of the variance in their life-satisfaction was associated with their answers to the music-player questions. "Considering the very wide range of potential variables that can influence life satisfaction for an individual, this is a very high result," Cockrill said. By contrast, for non-iPod owners, their answers to the music-player questions were virtually irrelevant to their life satisfaction.
The finding for iPod owners is consistent with a seminal theory proposed by Russell Belk in the 1980s that the things we own come to represent our extended selves. Also relevant is research showing how young people use their music preferences to express their identities and to fit in with their friends. It would appear that iPod owners gain satisfaction from their Apple toy and from identifying with, and gaining approval from, other owners of what they consider to be a "cool" product.
Other results to come from the study: iPod users reported using their music players more than non-iPod owners; iPod users were more likely to say their music player helped make boring activities more tolerable; and just under half of the iPod owners said it was important for them to own an Apple player rather than a different brand.
Cockrill said that Apple "can be congratulated for having created a product that has ... managed to retain the elusive 'cool factor'". However, she cautioned that her results also give cause for concern - she highlighted the likely negative consequences for people who desired an iPod but could not afford one, and for iPod owners who lost their treasured gadget.
Besides the dependence on a largely student sample, the study has another weakness - no attempt was made to create a psychological barrier between the questions about music players and the questions about life satisfaction, for example by presenting irrelevant questions or a distracting filler task. Although the order of questions was randomised, it's possible that thoughts about music players would have been foremost in the minds of many participants when they reported their life satisfaction. That said, it remains the case that only the iPod owners showed an association between their music-player answers and life-satisfaction.
Even more important - has this study really answered the question posed in its title, regarding whether iPods make us happy? Arguably, all the results show is that the happiness of people who care about their image, music players and trendy brands is affected by these very issues (hardly a surprise) and, furthermore, that these people tend to own an Apple iPod, the market-leading product (again, not that surprising). To probe the actual influence of the Apple iPod on people's happiness, future research would need to measure people's attitudes towards music and brands and follow them over time - to see if becoming an iPod owner (versus the owner of a different branded player) made any difference to their happiness.
Cockrill, A. (2012). Does an iPod make you happy? An exploration of the effects of iPod ownership on life satisfaction. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 11 (5), 406-414 DOI: 10.1002/cb.1385
--Further reading-- Steve Jobs gift to cognitive science.
How listening to an iPod shrinks your sense of personal space
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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