One of the great divides in the digital world is between those who believe that people who share files online are selfish, thieving pirates who just want something for nothing, and those who see them simply as ordinary people who want to swap cool stuff with the world. The first group views them as a canker eating at the heart of the music industry, while the second sees them as providing free marketing to the artists concerned. What evidence we have supports the latter view -- not least because the music industry is thriving, not dying as you might expect if piracy were a problem.
Of course, the first group continues to ignore such indications, preferring to hang on to their dogmatic belief that people in general are evil. Wouldn't it be nice if there were some other kind of evidence that those who share are motivated by good, not bad, intentions? Something like this work from the academic Paul Zak, reported in the Guardian recently?
Being treated decently, it turns out, causes people's oxytocin levels to go up, which in turn prompts them to behave more decently, while experimental subjects given an artificial oxytocin boost -- by means of an inhaler -- behave more generously and trustingly.
Here's how that plays out in the world of money:
in experiments, people behave more generously than traditional economic models predict that they should. A classic demonstration of this is known as the Trust Game, in which pairs of participants communicate with each other via computer terminals: they never meet, and have no idea who the other person is. Person A is given £10 [$16], then invited to send a portion of it, electronically, to person B. Person A has a motive for doing so: according to the rules, which both players know about, any money that A sends to B will triple in value, whereupon B will have the option of sending some of it back as a thank-you. According to conventional notions of rational behaviour, the game should break down before it has begun. Person B, acting selfishly, has no reason to give any money back -- and, knowing this, person A shouldn't send any over in the first place.
But that's not what happens. Instead, 90% of A-people send money anyway, while 95% of B-people send some back. That is, people want to give, they want to spread a little happiness. And those who get something, do feel an almost irresistible urge to give back, which might help to explain why so many people support artists whose music they share: they want to give back to the people that have effectively given to them by making music in the first place.
To which the skeptics would probably respond that even if this were true, not everybody acts this way. And the same research quoted above confirms that view:
"that's except for the 5% of people who are 'unconditional non-reciprocators'," says Zak, referring to the consistent minority of people who seem immune to this cycle. "What we call them in my lab is 'bastards'."
These are the leeches, the freeloaders, who take without giving. Nobody denies that they exist, but the key issue is whether you focus on them obsessively, and want politicians to frame ever-harsher laws to punish them (and everyone else as collateral damage), or whether you ignore them, and concentrate on selling to the 95% of file sharers who are "reciprocators" and are only too happy to give back by buying music from the artists they enjoy. If Zak's results about the power and near-universality of oxytocin's feedback loop are anything to go by, it's pretty clear which one is likely to succeed.
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+