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Study finds you tend to break your old iPhone when a new one comes out

David Pogue
Tech Critic

Ah, it’s that time of year again! Carols ring, holly glistens, and Apple (AAPL) comes out with a new iPhone model.

And we conveniently start losing or breaking our existing phones.

That’s not just clumsiness at work. According to a study from the University of Michigan, it’s your psychology at work, attempting to help you justify the purchase of a faster, better phone model. (The study’s title is, “’Be Careless With That!’: Availability of Product Upgrades Increases Cavalier Behavior Toward Possessions.” It was published in the October 2017 Journal of Marketing Research.)

Ordinarily, associate professor of psychology Josh Ackerman says, when we lose or break a phone, we file a report. We ask our insurance to cover it, we cash in on our AppleCare coverage—we somehow report it. But when he studied the numbers over time, he discovered something bizarre: every time Apple or Samsung comes out with a new smartphone model, the number of broken phone/lost phone claims go down.

Josh Ackerman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Skyped in to explain his study.

“And our interpretation of that was, once people wanted to start upgrading, they just cared less about the product that they currently had,” Ackerman says. “They’re causing damage to them, losing them, and so on, despite the fact that that is costly to them.”

It’s our subconscious at work, he says. “People have this very strong desire to justify why they’re going to get a new product. If you already own a phone and it works just fine, but a new one comes out that seems really, really appealing, what do you tell yourself in order to convince yourself to get that new phone? Maybe you tell yourself, ‘Well, maybe my phone’s not working quite as well as I thought.’ Or maybe, ‘Oops, I dropped it on the ground and the screen cracked!’ Or, ‘Maybe I happened to leave it in a taxi.’ Those kinds of justifications might mean, ‘Oh, now I get to tell myself that I can really buy that new product.’”

And yet if you ask people if they think they could be susceptible to this kind of mental psyche-out, they’ll deny it. “When we ask people in our studies, ‘Would you go out and intentionally lose your phone?,’ people are like, ‘No, that’s crazy—I would never do this!’”

To test his theory, Ackerman’s team reproduced the psychological setup with less pricey belongings.

“We looked at eyeglasses, sunglasses, coffee mugs. For example, that we gave people coffee mugs—just regular, everyday, kind of boring mugs. And we told some people that they could have the opportunity to get a much better mug, a much nicer mug,” Ackerman says. “And we put them in a position where they could potentially take risks with the mug that they had. And it turns out that people who were wanting to get that better mug took more risks. In fact, they dropped their mug more frequently. And oh, suddenly—“My mug is broken! I better get that new one.!”

There are two takeaways, Ackerman says. First, just be aware that your psychology may be playing these games with you.

Second, if you admit that you want the new model phone, take active steps to do something useful with your old one. “We also found in our research that if you give people another type of justification—not one where they’re damaging their product, but one where you donate or trade it in—that works just as well to motivate people to get these new products. You’ll feel a lot better about yourself.”

More from David Pogue:

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iPhone X review: Gorgeous, pricey, and worth it

Inside the Amazon company that’s even bigger than Amazon

The $50 Google Home Mini vs. the $50 Amazon Echo Dot — who wins?

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Augmented reality? Pogue checks out 7 of the first iPhone AR apps 

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, is the author of “iPhone: The Missing Manual.” He welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email