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Technology Updated: 11 Jan 2018

Why people stop taking care of their mobile phones when a new model comes out

It’s called the 'upgrade effect.' A new version of your mobile comes out and, without realizing it, you become careless with your own phone. Is your subconscious crying out for that spectacular new model that’s already available in the stores?

Mobile phones are dropped, scratched, soaked or lost. And the same happens with other technological gadgets, from laptops to tablets. Such unforeseen events require you to buy a new model, which will be more beautiful, with more features and more possibilities. It’s more than just a wish, it’s a need….Right?

Three marketing and social psychology researchers, - Silvia Bellezza, of Columbia University; Joshua M. Ackerman of the University of Michigan and Francesca Gino, of Harvard University - conducted a study on the care (or carelessness) with which objects are treated, in relation to the possibility of acquiring a better model.

Their findings were clear: there is an 'upgrade effect,' that is, the will to move up to a better model. When consumers know that there’s a new version of their product, they tend to be more careless with the one they own, in order to justify replacing it. 

As Bellezza explained in an article in The New York Times, when you buy a new object, it's as if we started a mental countdown: it should last a couple of years. If less time goes by and consumers already want a new model when the one they have works perfectly well, they develop a sense of guilt. How can they get rid of it? With an accident, that is, with the 'upgrade effect.'

Researchers ran their theory on two parallel tracks. On the one hand, real data; on the other, academic experiments.

The experiment was as follows: two groups played Jenga, a board game in which players have to dismantle, step by step, an unstable tower formed by wood blocks. A  cheap cup was placed at the top of the two towers. One group knew that there was a much better cup available, which they could buy at the end of the experiment. Those who knew they had the option to buy a better cup removed the blocks of the tower with less care and skill; those who did not know that there was a better quality option were more careful. These tests were carried out with other consumer goods ranging from glasses to perfumes.


A Jenga tower.

Apart from the experiments, the researchers used the IMEIDetective database of 3,000 iPhones. In addition, they conducted their own survey among 600 mobile phone owners. The figures showed that the availability of a new generation of iPhones increased the negligent attitudes towards the mobile devices as the launch date of the new model was approaching.

The 'upgrade effect' is obviously good news for brands. And for consumers? Are they doomed to the absurdity of cheating themselves to get what they really want? The authors of the study recommend an honest approach: if you really want a new version of your phone, donate the one you have or give it to someone who will appreciate it. This will reduce your sense of guilt and you´ll have the product you want, without any self-deception.