Jeff Bone: There’s a scientific reason why we get bored with our toys.
Barry Schwartz’s recent article in The Daily Beast, entitled “Consumption Makes Us Sad? Science Says We Can Be Happy With Less,” introduced me to the scientific name and explanation for a feeling that we’ve all experienced living in the United States. It’s called hedonic adaptation, and it’s the scientific reason that explains why we get bored with our toys.
I was one of the crazy people that stood in line for hours waiting for the Apple store to open to get one of the original iPads on launch day in early April 2009. My iPad has become my favorite device for surfing the web, and my interface for countless libraries’ worth of everything from snow forecasts to audio books. I use it every day. I almost upgraded to an iPad 2 when they were introduced in 2010, but I waited–reasoning that skipping a generation was a fiscally sound way of leveraging my investment in technology that still operated fine.
The third iPad was introduced on Friday, March 16. Tens of thousands of people around the country stood in line to get one. Over 3 million iPads were sold in the first weekend alone. I decided that I would get a new iPad, if for no other reason than to avoid having to “share” a single iPad with everyone else at my house. But I also decided I wouldn’t give in to the hedonic temptation. I would wait until the hype subsided and make my purchase a few weeks later.
In my defense, I went to the Apple Store on launch day after lunch, when they should have been completely sold out of iPads. I swear I only went in to price a case for the new iPad. I even inadvertently left my wallet in the car (recommended for when you shouldn’t be buying anything).
I recall having a moment of flight instinct when I sheepishly walked out to my car to get my credit card and ID to complete the purchase.
If this iPad had been my first, it would have been ideal. But I should have realized that the new iPad was not going to meet my expectations when I read the tag line that Apple used to introduce the product—“It’s Resolutionary.” To be fair to the marketing team and my experience with my new iPad, this is the perfect slogan to market the new iPad. It hints at being the incredible product that it is to anyone who has never used an iPad before, and yet it communicates sound expectation management to anyone who, like me, was considering an upgrade from a previous model.
But we have been so influenced by our materialistic culture that, as Barry Schwartz notes, hedonic adaptation influences our experience with the latest shiny technology.
“…The pleasure is disappointingly short-lived. And although this adaptation happens to us again and again, we never seem to learn to anticipate it. The result is that even when we get exactly what we want, we often end up disappointed.”
So I should not have been surprised to find that my new iPad did not blow me away. I had been so coerced by the hype that most manufacturers pitch in their marketing. They compare their product from one tweak to the next, because if they can convince us their ideal product this week is slightly better than the one that you bought last week, you will buy the new product. Manufacturers want to sell more products and to make their shareholders more money, and our tendencies to become bored with our toys tends to serve this objective very well.
My new iPad is faster than my old iPad. Its screen is brighter and clearer than my old iPad. It does have a camera and many other features that my old iPad doesn’t. But is it really better at the moment? Apple’s design philosophy has made my old iPad just as capable as the new iPad for what I need and expect it to do. There is simply no compelling reason to replace it right now. But before I give too much credit to Apple’s philosophy, it’s worth noting that Apple also plays a game to keep us on what Schwartz calls the “hedonic treadmill.”
Apple has a unique pitch that is just as self-serving as the manufacturer with obsolescence designed into their product. Apple combines a well-designed product and a great user experience with a bit of religious fervor, Gnostic mysticism, and peer pressure. It feeds our hedonic tendency to want something that is not just shiny and new, but deserving of our reverence too. Apple wants us to believe it’s not just plastic and silicon. It is, in their words, “magical,” “amazing,” revolutionary,” and will “change the world.” And, as economist Robert Frank points out, it also gives us pleasure by enabling us to “one-up” our neighbor. How could we not want this?
Even as I reflect on my materialism, guilt, and allegiances, as a technologist I have to admit there are things on the horizon that will likely make the features of the new iPad much more attractive and likely make my old iPad of lesser value. But Schwartz tells me that studies show that I will find more joy in doing than having. So I’m going to find my joy, satisfaction, and pleasure in helping, in coaching, and in other ways of doing rather than by having the latest technology.
I can wait. But not much longer…
Jeff Bone is a social entreprenuer who lives in Colorado. His thoughts and ideas on technology and leadership have been published in CIO Magazine, InformationWeek, CMAonline, and the IEEE. He is currently serving as the Chief Technology Officer for an international organization that is launching an educational initiative through social media.