Whether it is the next iPhone model, a new flat TV screen, or a more fashionable collection of a favorite line of clothes, everyone tends to be very excited when big upgrades come out. Between the date of the announcement and the release date, we spend time weighing options and thinking through the potential purchase: what are the new features of the product? Is the upgrade a significantly enhanced product in comparison to the version we own? And, even more important, do we actually need an upgrade in the first place?

But there is another important thing we do: we treat our current products in ways that may break them, often unconsciously, so as to have a proper justification to upgrade. In a sense, we behave like the people depicted in a recent Virgin Mobile TV commercial, named “Happy Accidents” — a consumer microwaves his cell phone instead of a burrito, a lab worker drops his mobile into a vat of toxic sludge, and a commuter throws her phone into the backseat of a departing taxi. Oops! As becomes clear at the end of this commercial, these phone owners are all looking forward to “accidentally” destroying or losing their devices, thus necessitating an upgrade purchase. The advertisement has an element of truth. Research I have done with two colleagues (Silvia Bellezza of Harvard Business School and Josh Ackerman of the University of Michigan), shows that knowing a product upgrade is available leads consumers to mistreat the products they own.

Why? As human beings, we are wonderful storytellers. We want others to believe we are responsible, fair, and logical, and it’s also important for us to view ourselves this way. For this reason, when we behave in ways that are not consistent with the rosy image we hold of ourselves, we come up with all sorts of justifications to rationalize our behavior. In fact, we go as far as treating our possessions—and even our romantic partners—carelessly when an “upgrade” is on the market.

A well-established body of research, dating back at least as far as Freud’s 1894 elaboration of defense mechanisms, suggests that people’s perceptions of the world—and of themselves—are self-serving. Think about the last time you got onto your bathroom scale and were surprised by some bad news. You likely got off and then on again, just to make sure you didn’t misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot. Of course, when the scale delivers good news, we smile and dress up for the day. We are more than happy to accept evidence that makes us look good. When it doesn’t, we come up with justification so as to subtly tip the scales in our favor.

Read the full article "The Must-Have Effect" at Scientific American.