Researchers sometimes have the task of quantifying information we suspect but lack the resources or know how to explain. In the process, our hunches are confirmed, or theories are disproven. This is for sure the case with a recent study that measured mobile device users’ tendency to break or lose the products they own when they find out about a newer or more enhanced version of the same product.
They could even do so without accompanying feelings of guilt or waste even though their product may be fully functional, the study argues. Essentially researchers were looking at the reasons behind this phenomenon, termed “the upgrade effect”.
The study was co-partnered by researchers from the University of Michigan, Columbia University and Harvard University. The study, titled “Be Careless with That!” Availability of Product Upgrades Increases Cavalier Behavior toward Possessions, was published this month in The Journal of Marketing Research.
Though it can be difficult to measure conscious or subconscious thinking behind one’s relationship to the perceived value of an object, the researchers designed a study which came incredibly close. It involved both field and laboratory analysis of Apple iPhone users, with a number of important indicators such as risky behavior, general product neglect and faster consumable goods consumption rates being tested.
Study co-author Joshua Ackerman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan elaborates on the specific motivations behind the mentality that users justify: “For product upgrades to induce carelessness, it is indeed important that the upgrade product is an enhanced version of the current one not just a mere replacement.”
This study goes a step further than some others which merely equate materialism to a person’s happiness quotient. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researcher Edward Diener elaborates on what drives today’s global materialism: "There's a narrowing of the gap between materialists and nonmaterialists in life satisfaction as materialists' income rises," adding that “…if you're poor, it's very bad to be a materialist; and if you're rich, it doesn't make you happier than nonmaterialists, but you almost catch up."
In discussing the findings, Columbia University Assistant Professor of Marketing Silvia Bellezza, who co-authored the study said:
"Contrary to the prevailing notion that consumers highly value and care for their possessions, the current research demonstrates that consumers exhibit cavalier behavior toward owned products when in the presence of appealing product upgrades." A kind of modern, technology-driven version of the classic ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality is emerging.
This study could have important implications in terms of predicting and quantifying product cycles, though the chicken or the egg question remains: are customers accelerating the end of their products in response to the onslaught of Apple product and service updates or is Apple creating new iPhone products and services in response to aging phones?
Perhaps we will never have an answer to this question, but as this important study demonstrates, the end does apparently justify the means.