Google, Apple, Microsoft… why is there such fanboy-ism in tech?

I’m going to depart from my typical security related topics to discuss another issue: fanboy-ism.

You all reading this know what I mean – it’s when people have such a devotion to a certain product that they will defend, to the death, their preferred device or product and attack, to the death, their non-preferred anti-product. Mac vs. PC. iOS vs. Android. PS3 vs XBox. Just go to any article about any device on the Internet and you will see lots of comments that reflect this phenomenon.

Why does it exist?

I recently purchased the book You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. In the book, he looks at all of the various behavioral biases that we humans have. As it turns out, we all have tons of them. The fact that we can get anything done is a miracle. We all like to think that we are logical, rational actors most of the time and act irrationally only occasionally. It’s actually the other way around.

The reason why fanboys exist with such blind devotion is because of something called Choice Supportive Bias. This occurs when we make a decision to invest a significant amount of time, energy, money or a combination thereof into a product. In order to justify to ourselves that such a purchase was worth it, we make up reasons why it was a good idea.

From the You Are Not So Smart blog post: Fanboyism and Brand Loyalty:

… if the product is unnecessary, like an iPad, there is a great chance the customer will become a fanboy because they had to choose to spend a big chunk of money on it. It’s the choosing one thing over another which leads to narratives about why you did it.

If you have to rationalize why you bought a luxury item, you will probably find ways to see how it fits in with your self-image.

Apple advertising, for instance, doesn’t mention how good their computers are. Instead, they give you examples of the sort of people who purchase those computers. The idea is to encourage you to say, “Yeah, I’m not some stuffy, conservative nerd. I have taste and talent and took art classes in college.”

Are Apple computers better than Microsoft-based computers? Is one better than the other when looked at empirically, based on data and analysis and testing and objective comparisons?

It doesn’t matter.

Those considerations come after a person has begun to see themselves as the sort of person who would own one. If you see yourself as the kind of person who owns Apple computers, or who drives hybrids, or who smokes Camels, you’ve been branded.

Once a person is branded, they will defend their brand by finding flaws in the alternative choice and pointing out benefits in their own.

This type of irrational behavior doesn’t occur when you have to buy something where it doesn’t matter where you get it. Nobody cares where they buy their brand of gasoline – Shell, Exxon or 76. Nobody cares where they get their box of Kleenex. You don’t care that much which super market you go to.

I think this explains why people throw so much hate at Microsoft but not at Apple or Google. For years, Microsoft’s OS was the only game in town and you had to buy it. It was a successful model for the company but  you didn’t develop any sort of brand loyalty.

By contrast, devices that are optional like phones or tablets do develop loyalty because of Choice Supportive Bias. This is when you look at all the various options and finally settle on one. After you decide, you look back and rationalize your actions by believing the TV you bought was the best one. If it didn’t matter which TV you could have bought, it wouldn’t matter. But personal devices do because you have options.

As the blog post puts it:

To combat post-decisional dissonance, the feeling you have committed to one option when the other option may have been better, you make yourself feel justified in what you selected to lower the anxiety brought on by questioning yourself.

All of this forms a giant neurological cluster of associations, emotions, details of self-image and biases around the things you own. This is why all over the Internet there are people in word fights over video games and sports teams, cell phones and TV shows.

Many people in my generation grew up with only Microsoft OS’es to choose from and didn’t develop the loyalty. But the people coming up after me who are younger and have many options – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft – won’t have those same sorts of biases. Microsoft will be another option and if they have to sink a lot of money into it, they’ll develop blind for their devices. But if only one product or company from that list were dominant, it wouldn’t develop brand loyalty either.

So all you lovers-and-haters out there:

  1. Our decisions about why we like the things we do are irrational.

  2. Why do we defend these things so fervently? Unless you own shares in the company you love so dearly, your loyalty increases their bottom line, not yours.

After I read this book, I realized “Man, maybe I shouldn’t care so much about the things I like, and shouldn’t pay much attention to the things others like, either.”

Because we are not so smart.