The Misconception: You prefer the things you own over the things you don’t because you made rational choices when we bought them.
The Truth: You prefer the things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.
The Internet changed the way people argue.
Check any comment system, forum or message board and you will find fanboys going at it, debating why their chosen product is better than the other guy’s.
In modern consumer cultures like America, people compete for status through comparing their taste in products. (You can read more on how that works here: Selling Out).
Mac vs. PC, PS3 vs. XBox 360, iPhone vs. Android – it goes on and on.
Usually, these arguments are between men, because men will defend their ego no matter how slight the insult. These are also usually about geeky things that cost lots of money, because these battles take place on the Internet where tech-savvy people get rowdy, and the more expensive a purchase, the greater the loyalty to it.
Fanboyism isn’t anything new, it’s just a component of branding, which is something marketers and advertisers have known about since Quaker Oats created a friendly logo to go on their burlap sacks.
There was, of course, no friendly Quaker family making the oats back in 1877. The company wanted people to associate the trustworthiness and honesty of Quakers with their product. It worked.
This was one of, if not the first, such attempt to create brand loyalty – that nebulous emotional connection people have with certain companies which turns them into defenders and advocates for corporations who don’t give a shit.
In experiments at Baylor University where people were given Coke and Pepsi in unmarked cups and then hooked up to a brain scanner, the device clearly showed a certain number of them preferred Pepsi while tasting it.
When those people were told they were drinking Pepsi, a fraction of them, the ones who had enjoyed Coke all their lives, did something unexpected. The scanner showed their brains scrambling the pleasure signals, dampening them. They then told the experimenter afterward they had preferred Coke in the taste tests.
They lied, but in their subjective experiences of the situation, they didn’t. They really did feel like they preferred Coke after it was all over, and they altered their memories to match their emotions.
They had been branded somewhere in the past and were loyal to Coke. Even if they actually enjoyed Pepsi more, huge mental constructs prevented them from admitting it, even to themselves.
Add this sort of loyalty to something expensive, or a hobby which demands a large investment of time and money, and you get a fanboy. They defend their favorite stuff and ridicule the competition, ignoring facts if they contradict their emotional connection.
So, what creates this emotional connection to stuff and the companies who make doo-dads?
Marketers and advertising agencies call the opposite of fanboys hostages.
Hostages have no choice but to buy certain products, like toilet paper and gasoline. Since they can’t choose to own or not to own the product, they are far less likely to care if one version of toilet paper is better than another, or one gas station’s fuel is made by Shell or Chevron.
On the other hand, if the product is unnecessary, like an iPad, there is a great chance the customer will become a fanboy because they had to choose to spend a big chunk of money on it. It’s the choosing one thing over another which leads to narratives about why you did it.
If you have to rationalize why you bought a luxury item, you will probably find ways to see how it fits in with your self-image.
Branding builds on this by giving you the option to create the person you think you are through choosing to align yourself with the mystique of certain products.
Apple advertising, for instance, doesn’t mention how good their computers are. Instead, they give you examples of the sort of people who purchase those computers. The idea is to encourage you to say, “Yeah, I’m not some stuffy, conservative nerd. I have taste and talent and took art classes in college.”
Are Apple computers better than Microsoft-based computers? Is one better than the other when looked at empirically, based on data and analysis and testing and objective comparisons?
It doesn’t matter.
Those considerations come after a person has begun to see themselves as the sort of person who would own one. If you see yourself as the kind of person who owns Apple computers, or who drives hybrids, or who smokes Camels, you’ve been branded.
Once a person is branded, they will defend their brand by finding flaws in the alternative choice and pointing out benefits in their own.
There are a number of cognitive biases which converge to create this behavior.
The Endowment Effect pops up when you feel like the things you own are superior to the things you do not.
Psychologists demonstrate this by asking a group of people how much they think a water bottle is worth. The group will agree to an amount around $5, and then someone in the group will be given the bottle for free.
Then, after an hour, they ask the person how much they would be willing to sell the bottle back to the experimenter for. They usually ask for more money, like $8.
Ownership adds special emotional value to things, even if those things were free.
Another bias is the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This is when you’ve spent money on something you don’t want to own or don’t want to do and can’t get it back.
For instance, you might pay too much for some takeout food that really sucks, but you eat it anyway, or you sit through a movie even after you realize it’s terrible.
Sunk Cost can creep up on you too. Maybe you’ve been a subscriber to something for a long time and you realize it costs too much, but you don’t end your subscription because of all the money you’ve invested in the service so far.
Is Blockbuster better than Netflix, or Tivo better than a generic DVR? If you’ve spent a lot of money on subscription fees, you might be unwilling to switch to alternatives because you feel invested in the brand.
These biases feed into the big daddy of behaviors which is most responsible for branding, fanboyism and Internet arguments about why the thing you own is better than the thing the other guy owns – Choice Supportive Bias.
Choice Supportive Bias is a big part of being a person, it pops up all the time when you buy things.
It works like this: You have several options, like say for a new television. Before you make a choice you tend to compare and contrast all the different qualities of all the televisions on the market.
Which is better, Samsung or Sony, plasma or lcd, 1080p or 1080i – ugh, so many variables!
You eventually settle on one option, and after you make your decision you then look back and rationalize your actions by believing your television was the best of all the televisions you could have picked.
In retail, this is a well-understood phenomenon, and to prevent Buyer’s Remorse they try not to overwhelm you with choice. Studies show if you have only a handful of options at the point of purchase, you will be less likely to fret about your decision afterward.
It’s purely emotional, the moment you pick. People with brain damage to their emotional centers who have been rendered into Spock-like beings of pure logic find it impossible to decide between things as simple as which brand of cereal to buy. They stand transfixed in the aisle, contemplating every element of their potential decision – the calories, the shapes, the net weight – everything. They can’t pick because they have no emotional connection to anything, no emotional motivations.
To combat postdecisional dissonance, the feeling you have committed to one option when the other option may have been better, you make yourself feel justified in what you selected to lower the anxiety brought on by questioning yourself.
All of this forms a giant neurological cluster of associations, emotions, details of self-image and biases around the things you own.
This is why all over the Internet there are people in word fights over video games and sports teams, cell phones and TV shows.
The Internet provides a fertile breeding ground for this sort of behavior to flourish.
So, the next time you reach for the mouse and get ready to launch an angry litany of reasons why your favorite – thing – is better than the other person’s, hesitate.
Realize you have your irrational reasons, and so do they, and nothing will be gained by your proselytizing.
Barry Shwartz on choice at TED
Radiolab on choice
Bruce Everiss on fanboys
10 Golden Rules of fanboyism
Coke vs. Pepsi in the MRI machine