I happened to be browsing and saw a review of the newly released iPhone 5. On a whim I figured I’d have a look, turned out the most interesting part of the review for me was the misunderstanding of psychology in the opening paragraphs.

In setting up how “everyman” their acquisition of the new phone was the author provided a teaching moment on the ins and outs of investment bias and how we prefer things when they are hard to get.

Here’s the extract of relevance:

“Just to be clear, this isn’t some corporate review unit we’re talking about—we waited outside at the hellacious crack of dawn in a hell-pit shopping mall alongside people who were willing to actually hit each other for a new phone. We battled line-cutters and a shifty AT&T retail manager. I wasn’t due for a new contract, so I ponied up extra money for a semi-subsidized handset I was truthfully only buying because I shattered my last one.

I say this both because we got this phone like most people did, and because it was a gigantic pain in the ass. I had every reason to resent the iPhone 5. And yet…”

This might be intuitive but actually gets the psychology precisely backwards. We actually value things more highly if we are force to go through hardship to get them.

A similar effect is seen with the (now illegal) “hazing” rituals of American college fraternities. These groups would put new recruits through torturous initiation rites. You would think that any normal person would despise with a passion the person or group that did this to them but that’s not the case; these rituals inculcate a fierce loyalty to the group.

One theory to explain this is that of Cognitive Dissonance, the reasoning goes that people are justifying the effort by convincing themselves that they really like the group/item/task that they had to go through so much pain to join/get/complete because otherwise they are some sort of moron. Ok maybe not quite in those terms, but you get the idea.

To illustrate this from a slightly different perspective here’s the defining early experiment demonstrating the effect. Participants in the study had to complete an extremely boring task (adding and removing spools from a tray and turning pegs for about an hour). They were then paid to lie to a new participant about how enjoyable the task was, for this they were pain either 1$ or $20.

After this the participants rated honestly how enjoyable they found the task.

Those who were paid $20 predictably rated the task as boring, but those paid only $1 rated it as relatively more enjoyable.

These participants had done something relatively distasteful (lying) for very small reward ($1), as such they had two choices consider themselves liars or alter their attitudes about the task to seem like they hadn’t really lied at all. Being the heroes of their own story, as we all are, they “chose” the second option.

How does this relate to the hardship of getting an iPhone on release day? Well, if you go through all that effort you are either a schmuck, or the product really is that good. I know which one I’d rather believe.

That’s not to say the phone isn’t that good, could be. But it is one more thing to cement loyalty to the brand. Maybe other brands should take note.

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