People Trash Their Phones When an Upgrade is Close

By Sidney Fussell on at

A study in the Journal of Marketing Research found that right around upgrade time, people tend to be more reckless with their phones. Researchers Josh Ackerman, Silvia Bellezza, and Francesca Gina investigated why people’s preservation skills slide into Airplane Mode as soon as a new model phone comes out.

They noticed what they called an “upgrade effect”, defined in the study as a phenomenon in which “careless tendencies are intended to promote the acquisition of upgrade products by helping consumers justify the new purchase.” It’s not just a lapse in judgment; people are unconsciously, but to a certain degree, deliberately, losing and breaking their phones.

“When we ask people if this is something you would normally do, the vast majority say no,” Ackerman says over the phone of casually leaving phones behind or dropping them. “Which suggests that people just don’t realise that this behaviour is going on.”

The researchers began by analysing the IMEI Detective database, essentially an online lost and found system. When someone finds a lost phone, they can enter its IMEI number to see if the owner has reported it stolen and, crucially, if they’ve offered a reward. Tracking the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S, the researchers found that almost as soon as the 5S was released, iPhone 5 owners spent much less time looking for their lost phones—some didn’t even report them missing.

Courtesy of Silvia Bellezza, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School

“The psychology behind it is that we don’t like to be wasteful,” Dr. Bellezza said over Skype. We want the shiny new features and boosted social status that comes with the latest model, but we know that we don’t need them. To avoid the guilt of being a wasteful hypebeast, we turn to self-sabotage.

We do the same thing to everything we own, not just phones. The researchers found a similar “upgrade effect” in a number of products: shampoos, toothpaste, laundry detergent, and perfume. Once respondents in the experiment decided that they wanted a new product, they began overusing what they had in order to expedite getting it without being wasteful.

Neither Ackerman or Bellezza think companies are purposely exploiting this psychological tendency, but both believe that one way to avoid the “upgrade effect” is through donations and recycling.

“If people have another opportunity to do something with the product that’s valuable, then we see that those kinds of actions actually stop this effect from happening,” Ackerman said. “It’s really only when people think that they have nothing else to do with the phone other than to get rid of it, that’s when we see this careless behaviour.”