A strange thing happens when a new iPhone is released. Google searches for “iPhone slow” spike. It’s like the mere presence of a faster, more advanced iPhone suddenly renders all previous models sluggish and undesirable.
It's not clear why this happens. In the New York Times, Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan — whose Ph.D. student compiled the Google data — theorized that iOS updates optimized for new phones could be slowing down older phones. Bloated software could be to blame. There are also plenty of conspiracy theories about shadowy figures in Cupertino purposefully gumming up the works to sell more products.
Or it could just be in everybody’s mind.
"The research shows that just a hint of something better out there makes us devalue what we already have," said Amber Epp, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin.
That means that if someone really, really wants the new iPhone, he or she will start fixating on problems or notice brand-new ones.
"Logically, it's not rational to buy something new when you have something that works perfectly fine," she said.
Many shoppers, of course, consider themselves rational people. They also don't love the idea of dropping $200 (or more than $600 without a contract) on something that they don't really need. So how do you reconcile the desire for a shiny, new toy with an aversion to wasting cash?
"You are trying to justify to yourself that it's okay to spend that money," said Wendy Boland, an associate professor of marketing at American University. "Nobody wants to spend a lot of money and feel like, 'That wasn't the right thing to do.'"
In other words, buying the iPhone 6 when you have a working iPhone 5 might seem indulgent or wasteful. But what if that iPhone 5 was, on second thought, kind of running slowly?
Humans beings are wired to seek out novelty, Epp said. It's what helps people discover new tools and new ideas. This is not new behavior, of course. It's possible that someone eyed the second wheel ever made in the Bronze Age and said, "Well, that one does look a bit thinner ...."
Companies like Apple are in the perfect position to take advantage of that instinct. Smartphone technology evolves rapidly, meaning our phones can seem obsolete as soon as we unwrap them. We also have a strong emotional connection to our phones because we use them constantly, Epp said, often to connect with loved ones.
They have also become status symbols in the way that handbags and sports cars have been for decades.
"Many people don’t want to feel like they have been left behind," said Russ Winer, professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business. "If you’re with out with someone and they pop out a flip phone, someone is bound to make a joke about it."
That is a lot of pressure to have the newest, shiniest phone on the market. But if that was all there was to it, searches for "Samsung Galaxy slow" should net the same results, right? It's the most coveted Android phone, equipped with features that rival those of the iPhone.
It turns out that was not the case. Mullainathan took the lack of the same spikes in desire as evidence that iOS updates, not psychology, were more likely the culprit, because the release of a new Samsung device should have had the same effect on Samsung owners as new iPhones did on iPhone owners.
But there is another possible explanation. Maybe Apple inspires a desire that is unique in the smartphone market.
"Apple has a very passionate group of customers," Winer said. "You can see that when you walk into an Apple store; it’s not the same when you walk by a Samsung display in a Best Buy."