Xbox vs PlayStation, Apple vs Android -- Why Are We So Tribal About Tech?

By Andrew Holding on at

Ever felt that fans of their favourite tech are mindless zombies? Well, there may be more truth in that than you think. We’ve all seen the comments sections of the latest technology releases filled with impassioned voices praising whatever their favourite manufacturer’s release. Take, for example, the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. In one camp it was praised as "bold" and "courageous" while in the other it was denounced as a terrible idea. And people almost bizarrely angry about it. But why? The problem, fundamentally, is that our human brains simply don’t make rational choices a priority.

Brains have evolved to keep their personal meatbag alive long enough to reproduce. To do this the brain uses shortcuts to cope with complex situations where there is either too much or too little information especially at those critical moments when we need to make decisions fast. While that might work well in a world of predator and prey, in world of high costs and complex technology and our brains misapplies those same shortcuts and this can lead to the impassioned way we talk about our purchases.

Are You Having A Laugh?

Nearly five years ago, having been involved in a couple of Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows (and somehow writing a sell-out pantomime), I got involved with a project called Bright Club. Bright Club is a stand-up comedy event where researchers from universities get up on stage and give stand-up comedy a go. Typically each biologist, historian or astronomer will only have a few hours’ training before being sent off to write their first ever set on their work. (If you’re interested, much of the content of the training can be found in Logan Murray’s comedy book ‘Be a great stand up’, and you can watch some of the results on Cambridge TV). The event has been massively successful, given great reviews, and received many a laugh.

A key part of that training that has stuck with me, and a tip I’ve passed on to many other people since, is never try to get started doing free comedy nights. Why? The more people buy into something, the more they will need to convince themselves they enjoyed it. In the case of comedy, this means they’ll laugh. And as any novice comedian will tell you, that pause between going on stage and the first laugh is the hardest moment of any set. The guy who trained me called it the ‘conscientious consumer effect’ - in other words, people like to think they spent their money wisely. People don’t like to think they’ve made a bad choice and so on a night out, if you have a ticket price, they’ve already bought into what you’re doing. An audience who turns up for free, on the other hand, is going to make you work ten times harder to convince them it’s a great event, which is not what any novice needs.

So what does that have to do with when the office breaks out into a debate of what’s better: iPhone or Android? Or your mates down the pub starting on about Xbox vs Playstation? A big problem we have as humans is that we don’t like our brains to be in conflict. Holding two competing ideas at the same time isn’t very pleasant. This is cognitive dissonance, and as with anything that causes us discomfort, we aim to minimise it, often using the cognitive shortcuts mentioned earlier. The worst kinds of examples of our brain doing this are logical fallacies like confirmation bias. This is when we read a news story, and if it goes with our established viewpoint, we’re quick to accept it; if it contradicts, it we’re just as fast to reject it. Before you know it, people are publishing satirical news stories as fact. Sadly, it appears our default programming is completely irrational.

We’re no different when it comes to our tech - if we see an article that says the Playstation is better than the Xbox and it fits our own choices, we will quickly believe it to minimise our cognitive dissonance. See something that doesn’t fit with our beliefs, we suppress it.

Buyer's Remorse

Buyer’s remorse appears to be another outcome of this. This is the cognitive dissonance of having to make a choice with conflicting information doesn’t sit well in the human mind: Even when we make a choice, we are still in conflict because rarely do we get everything we want.

Marketers are fully aware of this "Paradox of Choice" too: money back guarantees aren’t just for your benefit. Making the process reversible gives our mind a little bit of a get out, so we don’t feel so bad for our purchase. The better we feel about our purchase, the more likely we’re going to do it again. Weirdly, this also motivates companies like Apple into providing only a small number of options on their websites and in store, because if a company provides too many options, the discomfort is maximised and the customer doesn’t enjoy the experience. Therefore, from a retailer's point of view, fewer options are a good thing.

This Post Purchase Cognitive Dissonance (PPCD) also has a lot to do with our investment into the purchase. Spend £1 on something and you’re over it pretty quickly. Lock yourself into a 24-month contract at £50 per month and you’ll want to convince yourself that you're absolutely correct in your choice. The good news is that by the end of the contract, you stop feeling so impassioned. In fact, you might damn well hate the thing. The same goes for the hundreds of pounds spent on your console: It’s a horribly unpleasant feeling to make the wrong choice. So many people end up justifying it to everyone else.

To make matters worse, we can’t even trust our own memory. A study in 2007 involving the purchase of used cars found that even if participants were told they had made a different choice to the one they had actually made, they would still bias themselves to justify the imaginary choice they believed they had made.

You, when buying a new gadget.

So the good news for 2017 is if you’re sitting there with your old phone, be proud that you’ve saved yourself a new contract. You can be complacent that everyone isn’t being objective and you made the right choice. The bad news is you the problem isn’t that they’re mindless zombies, their brain is doing exactly what a brain does, and next time you buy something you’ll do exactly the same thing.