Applied Science

Oops, you “accidentally” dropped your phone in the pool. Too bad you now have to buy an upgrade.

Every so often, Apple comes out with an updated iPhone. It typically has new features and attracts a lot of buzz, which causes many consumers to lust for an upgrade. As it turns out, all that buzz can also lead to an increase in iPhone accidents.

When a new model is available, according to recent research, people who have iPhones tend to become more careless with the phones they already own.

The phenomenon also applies to more prosaic products like sunglasses, mugs and toothpaste, the researchers found.

“Consumers act more recklessly with their current products when in the presence of appealing, though not yet attained, product upgrades (not just mere replacements),” according to a paper to to be published in The Journal of Marketing Research that was written in part by Silvia Bellezza, an assistant marketing professor at Columbia Business School.

Professor Bellezza embarked on the research because she was interested in “whether consumers break things on purpose because they need a justification,” she said. She was joined in the study by Joshua Ackerman of the University of Michigan and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School.

The three looked at a database of about 3,000 iPhones on a website where people can register their stolen, lost or found devices. They discovered that people were less likely to try to track down their lost phones when an upgrade was available. This was “a nice proxy for carelessness in the real world,” Professor Bellezza said. The results were replicated in their own survey of 600 cellphone owners, she said.

The scholars checked to see whether their findings applied outside the smartphone market.

In another test, they gave all the participants a free mug. Some participants were shown nicer mugs to indicate the availability of an upgrade, while others were not shown other mugs. The participants then played a game where they placed their mugs on top of a Jenga tower. (In Jenga, a tower becomes progressively more unstable as people remove blocks.) The people who had been shown better mugs were more likely to play the game in such a way that their towers collapsed, potentially damaging their more ordinary mugs.

The researchers also surveyed more than 1,000 consumers of items like shampoo, sunglasses, toothpaste and perfume, and found that they were more likely to be wasteful or careless with a product if they knew an improved version was available.

When we buy something new, Professor Bellezza explained, it’s as if we’re opening a mental account in our head that says we should hang on to it for, say, two years. People experience guilt if they feel the urge to buy a new version of a product when the one that they own is working perfectly well.

Losing or breaking it is presumably a way to buy a new one without experiencing too much guilt over the expenditure, she said.

One way to try to counteract this unconscious behavior is to think about donating our older purchases to friends or family members, Professor Bellezza said: “When we are thinking about giving things to someone that we care about, we become less careless.”