Virgin Mobile tapped into an interesting truth of consumer behavior in its Happy Accidents ad, showing how consumers tend to mistreat their old phones when a shiny new one comes out, all so they can “justify” the upgrade. Francesca Gino writes about her recent research on the subject in Scientific American, where she suggests that this kind of behavior (“accidentally” dropping or losing a product) is all part of an elaborate lie we construct for ourselves.

“We want others to believe we are responsible, fair, and logical, and it’s also important for us to view ourselves this way. For this reason, when we behave in ways that are not consistent with the rosy image we hold of ourselves, we come up with all sorts of justifications to rationalize our behavior. In fact, we go as far as treating our possessions — and even our romantic partners — carelessly when an “upgrade” is on the market.”

The researchers write in their paper that they examined “evidence from a real-word dataset of lost Apple iPhones,” where they found “how the availability of product upgrades increases cavalier behavior toward possessions.” A missing iPhone 5s tended to go unreported when the iPhone 6 was inbound.

These behaviors were further confirmed in their lab study where researchers observed participants' cavalier attitudes toward a $1 mug. The experiment went like this: Participants were given a mug worth $1 and told them they could keep it. The researchers then asked the participants to play a game of Jenga, where the object is to remove individual blocks carefully from a tower so as not to topple it over. For each block successfully removed without the structure falling down, the researchers awarded participants $1. To raise the stakes even higher, the researchers placed the participant's mug on top of the Jenga tower and told them if it fell, they could not catch it and they would not receive a new one.

The researchers also set up a second condition where all the same rules applied, however, the other group was shown a new $10 mug at the start of the experiment and told the participants they would have the opportunity to purchase it at the end of the study.

Gino writes:

“Among those in the upgrade condition, 61 percent dropped the mug during the game, as compared to only 37 percent of those in the no-upgrade condition. It seems that exposure to mug upgrades led participants to become more careless with their owned mugs. Why? Careless behavior allowed participants to justify buying an upgrade without having to consciously admit to themselves or others that they had been intentionally wasteful.”

When it comes to using our gadgets in the real world, venture capitalist Eric Hippeau explains that Silicon Valley is the first to build the new technology while New York City gives it a real test run. I wonder on which coast people are "accidentally" dropping their phone into the sink more often?

Read more at Scientific American.

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