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Organizational psych

How people let their stuff break to justify a phone upgrade

allow phone to break

Do you feel guilty about upgrading to a new phone when you don’t really need one? If so, you’re not alone. A new paper published in the journal Management Science shows that some people “accidentally” let their devices break to justify a phone upgrade, especially when a new version comes out. But they only do so when the new version mainly offers aesthetic (i.e. unnecessary) improvements, rather than technological improvements.

The researchers conducted several studies to test whether their hypothesis is true: namely, that endangering a product “frees” the owner to upgrade to the new version. The first study looked at online sales listings for more than 400,000 second-hand iPhones. Specifically, they looked at the introduction of the white iPhone 4. This new model was identical to the existing iPhone 4 in every way except the new color. The launch of this white iPhone was unique, the researchers say, because it offered only an aesthetic design improvement. In practice, new versions of most products offer both design and technological improvements.

A new launch leads to more “damaged” phones for sale

They found that in the weeks after the launch of the white iPhone 4, there was a large increase in the number of black iPhone 4 phones listed as “damaged,” rather than merely “used.” Yet after the launch of the iPhone 4S, which offered clear technological improvements, they saw the opposite effect. That is, the number of “used” iPhone 4 phones for sale increased, relative to those listed as “damaged.”

They also found this increase took about two weeks to develop after the launch. This, the researchers propose, suggests that the owners endangered their phones, but did deliberately not break them.

The researchers also conducted a survey to test these results. This survey confirmed that people feel a phone upgrade offering technological improvements is easier to justify than a mere design upgrade. The survey also found that this phenomenon is not specific to Apple products.

More likely to take the phone on a hike, or even throw it at a balloon

A second experiment found that iPhone owners were more willing to let their iPhones break after learning about a new version that offered design (rather than technological) improvements. For example, they indicated more willingness to take their iPhones on an outdoor hike where it could easily be damaged. Importantly, this was only the case for participants whose iPhones were no longer under warranty. Indeed, across these experiments, the “endangering effect” weakens when the product is still under warranty. This is because damaging a phone that is no longer under warranty “frees” the owner to buy a new phone, because the old phone will not be replaced for free.

A third experiment detailed a hypothetical pre-launch event. Participants would be given the chance to throw their iPhone at a balloon floating 10 feet above the ground. If they hit the balloon, they would be given a significant discount on the new iPhone 8. The researchers again found that iPhone owners were more willing to take such a risk when their existing iPhone was not under warranty, in which case they would have to replace it if it got damaged.

Same results for iPads and Samsung Galaxy phones

They also found similar results when comparing iPads. Once again, the number of damaged relative to used iPad 2 devices offered for sale increased after the launch of the iPad 3; the iPad 3 offered mainly cosmetic improvements. But after the launch of the iPad 4 (which offered major tech improvements), the number of used relative to damaged iPad 3 devices offered for sale increased. The researchers found similar results after the launches of Samsung’s Galaxy S II and Galaxy S III phones.

In each of these studies, the researchers found people are more willing to let their iPhones break when the new version offered design improvements, rather than technological improvements.

Give consumers “justification ammunition” for a phone upgrade

So how can manufacturers use this information to their advantage?

When launching new versions of existing products, the study’s authors suggest, companies should consider giving consumers “justification ammunition.” Examples include highlighting the functional benefits of the new design, such as enhanced usability, or donating part of the sales revenues to charity.


Study: When and Why Consumers ‘Accidentally’ Endanger Their Products”
Authors: Yaniv ShaniGil AppelShai DanzigerRon Shachar
Published in: Management Science
Publication date: June 3, 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2019.3509
Photo: by KILIAN on Unsplash

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