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It's Not Just You: Why So Many People Lose or Break Their Phone Just as a New One Comes Out

Here’s the weird reason you’re more likely to break your iPhone when a new one is released.
Tim Cook waves during an Apple media event in San Francisco
Apple CEO Tim Cook waves during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, U.S. September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

Does it seem like your phone is more likely to suffer a fatal mishap — dropped onto the pavement, left in a taxi — right around the time that an upgraded version makes its debut?

If so, you’re not alone, and that apparent happenstance isn’t as coincidental as you might imagine.

It might seem strange that smartphone owners would get clumsier right as a new model hits the market, but that’s exactly what happens, according to a forthcoming article in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Data on lost iPhones shows that owners are less likely to try and track down their missing devices when a newer version is available, the paper found.

Related: iPhone Mania Hits as Apple Releases iPhone 7

The authors, a trio of professors at Columbia Business School, the University of Michigan and Harvard Business School, label this selective klutziness the “upgrade effect,” because it isn’t triggered by the availability of a replacement device. Instead, it manifests when a shiny new version comes along.

“Such careless tendencies are intended to promote the acquisition of upgrade products by helping consumers justify the new purchase,” they wrote.

It Wasn't My Fault

It’s not that we do this on purpose, exactly. The logical mental calculus is to consider whether we’ve gotten our money’s worth out of a product when we’re considering an upgrade. When we don’t have what we consider legitimate grounds to spend money on an upgraded version of a product that works just fine, carelessness is an unconscious dodge around our aversion to frivolous spending.

“‘Accidentally’ damaging a product or running out of it quickly allows them to write-off the residual value of the product and upgrade without recording a loss or appearing wasteful,” the researchers wrote.

Related: Watch Man Drop Brand New iPhone

Although the phone that’s been placed a little too close to the edge of the desk is probably the most identifiable instance of such behavior, the paper found that plenty of other products suffer the same fate when something better comes along.

In terms of items that are consumed and repurchased more quickly, like shampoo, laundry detergent or toothpaste, the paper says new formulas or similar tweaks advertised to improve how well they work prompt people to use up their supply of the old version at a faster rate.

You Can Always Trade It In

But this doesn’t mean you necessarily have to hold a funeral for your phone or laptop just because a new one came out. It’s possible to thwart our latent wasteful instincts, said Joshua Ackerman, assistant professor of psychology at University of Michigan and one of the paper’s authors.

Even simple awareness can go a long way. “As with a lot of these unconscious effects, when you pay attention to them, it’s not that difficult to stop yourself from actually doing these behaviors,” he said.

There is another solution, Ackerman said — although it’s one that works better for, say, iPads rather than shampoo or toothpaste. Ahead of an upgraded model release, make plans to sell or gift your device to help defray the cost of a new one.

Related: iPhones Are the Top Traded Tech Item

“They offer another way to justify what you’re doing,” Ackerman said of the sell-or-gift tactic. “If you have that intention, you’re clearly going to want to pay attention to caring for the product.”