News & Opinion

Psychology of Home Theater

Psychology very much matters when we are shopping for home theater gear. Marketing is designed to affect us through the use of psychological techniques. While there are lots of aspects of psychology at work when we are experiencing our home theaters, not all of them need to be explained. This article attempts to point out a couple of psychological effects that affect how we make purchases, enjoy our gear, and think about our home theaters.

Statistics or I’m an X Fanboi

For better or worse, statistics is not a required course in general education, much less home theater. As such, the Stats 101 mantra of “correlation does not equal causation” is not something that most people have heard. For me, it was the very first thing my Stats 101 teacher said on the first day and I heard it many, many more times over the course of the year. The classic example is that as ice cream sales increase, domestic violence incidents also increase. Does selling ice cream increase domestic violence? If we banned ice cream would domestic violence go away? Of course not! There is a third factor (time of year) that correlates with both. Therefore, you would be remiss if you claimed a causation between ice cream sales and domestic violence simply because of the correlation.

And yet we see this lack of statistics understanding over and over in home theater. Manufacturer X made my TV and I love it. They also make receivers. Therefore I will also love the receiver. Look at Yamaha. Do you love their receivers? You should try their motorcycles! And pianos! And boats! Sounds ridiculous? Well, it happens all the time in home theater.

N of 1 or I Heard from a Guy at Work

Before we make any claims in psychology, we need a large enough sample size in our tests. Do we want to know if a drug works? We don’t just give it to one person and ask them how they feel. We give it to hundreds if not thousands of people before we’ll make any claims about efficacy.

But in home theater, we are perfectly comfortable putting much more stock in something we heard from some rando at work. In psychology, we call this an N of 1 or a sample size of 1 person. When we get advice, we need to be very careful not to put too much stock just because we heard it from a real person rather than read it on the Internet.

There are real reasons to put more stock in one person’s opinion. Are they an expert? Have they given you advice in the past that has worked out? Do you know them well so you know their preferences and biases? Those are reasons to trust their advice.

Cognitive Dissonance or Did I Just Waste My Money?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological condition when a person is holding two conflicting beliefs. This causes them mental stress and a desire to resolve those two beliefs. In home theater, this happens when you buy something and then read a review that says what you bought isn’t very good. You want to believe that you didn’t waste your money but the review says you did. So, what do you do? Either you reject the review, or you return the product. If you can’t return the product, then you are in a real pickle. Either you reject the review or admit that you wasted your money.

As you read this predicament, you can probably envision a time in your life when something similar happened. I know I can. The stress at the time was very strong. With the benefit of hindsight, the conclusion is clear. But, at the time, the different beliefs seemed impossible to resolve.

We also see this play out in popular culture. Many people have favorite actors, directors, or public figures. If some sort of negative news comes out about them, they act as if it were a personal attack against them. They lash out in the comments defending the person as if they were defending themselves. Again, cognitive dissonance is at play. They very much like the actor (or, more likely, the character they played in a movie). The news suggests that maybe they shouldn’t. So they have to resolve those beliefs.

Expectation Bias or I Knew These Would be the Best Speakers EVARRRR

We’ve talked about how salespeople prep you when you are auditioning speakers. They tell you what you are about to hear, they play the music, and then confirm with you that you heard it. But this happens internally as well. When you have spent a lot of time shopping for a piece of gear and you finally get it, it is the best. You can’t stop raving. You see these people on Amazon reviews constantly. They’ve just got their new gear and they are SURE it is the best.

What you don’t see is their thoughts six months later. When their excitement wears off and they’ve put enough time between their purchase. When they are more willing to admit that maybe there could be a better product out there (see Cognitive Dissonance above). You’ll find that their tune may have changed.

FOMO or I Know I Just Bought X but Y was just Announced

We all know what FOMO is (fear of missing out). We’ve all felt it. Marketing in home theater is basically just one big FOMO psychological attack. Did you just buy a new TV? Didn’t you know there is a new, bigger one coming out in a month? Oh well! You live with that tiny TV!

When buying new gear, it is often advisable to go on a Google blackout for a couple of months. Yes, all your targeted ads will feature the gear you just bought so you’ll need to shop for something else to get them to switch. But actively avoid reviews and news of similar gear for at least a couple of months. Six if you can manage it. This will allow you to really get to know your gear before you start to read about new stuff.

Analysis Paralysis or Shop til you Shop

I’ll be honest: I love to shop. It really doesn’t matter for what. I read tons of reviews. I compare features. Excel tables, hundreds of tabs open, and emails to manufacturers with ridiculously specific questions are the norm. lt takes me forever to make a decision.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the end, I have much more confidence that I’ve bought something I’ll be happy with. The higher cost of the product, the more I obsess over it. The important part is that at some point you have to make a decision. I’ve met people that never do. They just keep shopping looking for that “perfect” product. Honestly, there is nothing that will be absolutely perfect. Everything has compromises. For me, I just need to know what compromises to expect.

Objectivism vs Subjectivism or I Don’t Care what you Measured, I Heard It!

In home theater as in psychology, objectivism and subjectivism are often envisioned as being at odds. You are either a hard-science (numbers) or soft-science (interviews) person. But this doesn’t have to be the case. In psychology we use many different tools. Surveys and data analysis gives use measurable conclusions while interviews, focus groups, and direct observation can provide context to those numbers.

Home theater can be the same way. If we measure a speaker and it provides results that contradict what we heard, the “solution” isn’t to reject one for the other. It is to look closer at our measurements and our experiences. There is a reason we heard what we heard and measured what we did. There could be another factor that affected what we heard, a mistake in our measurements, or some combination. Only by resolving the discrepancies can we truly understand what is happening.

Apples to Oranges or But This Other Review Said…

When we are looking at buying a specific product, it is easy to find reviews that completely contradict each other. One reviewer thought the product was one of the best on the market while the other thought it was junk. The temptation is to compare these two reviews directly. That would be a mistake.

Psychology teaches us to look for causes outside of the expected. In home theater, even in more objective tests, there are underlining biases. One reviewer might measure a display as it comes out of the box with no changes to the settings, while another may optimize the display before measurement. One might care more about absolute brightness while another may care more about contrast ratios.

When we look at speaker reviews, many more biases play a part. What does the reviewer’s room look like? How well is it treated? Did they use subwoofers with their tests? Did they run any room correction programs? And what do they actually care about in a speaker? How high the speaker can play cleanly or how much bass can it pump out? Maybe they only care about absolute volume. When comparing reviews, you need to be very careful to identify those inherent biases and keep them in mind.


Of course this article cannot be definitive. Our psychology affects our home theater experience from shopping, to buying, to our enjoyment. The only way to combat these psychological effects is to make ourselves aware that we are being affected by them. Armed with this knowledge, we can realize what is happening so that we can combat them. If we do that, we can be confident in our purchases and content in knowing that we bought the right gear for our room, our budget, and our tastes.

2 Comments on Psychology of Home Theater

  1. Matthew Palmer

    Thanks for another great article, Tom!
    I’m guessing this is a typo here: ” If you can’t return the product, then you are a real pickle.”

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