The science of fanboyism

We've all encountered them. They lurk in Internet message boards, comment threads, and chatrooms. Addressing anyone and everyone, they type up lengthy tirades with Cheeto-stained fingers, extolling the virtues of their product or brand of choice. They angrily accuse even the most impartial reviewers of taking handouts from reviled competitors of a beloved company, and they casually and systematically dismiss any evidence that might conflict with their worldview.

They're known in our parlance as fanboys.

For years, I've quietly wondered about what drives them. What on Earth pushes sane, otherwise intelligent people to develop an irrational bias toward a given brand or product? Most of the time, the products in question are entirely unworthy of emotional attachment—most of the fanboys here at TR have fallen in love with graphics cards, microprocessors, cell phones, and laptops. Those folks are usually notorious and often ridiculed, but never ignored, for their angry critiques and smug self-affirmations draw crowds of others—sometimes fanboys from rival clans—determined to make them see reason. It never works.

Are we seeing the manifestation of a rational process, whereby people attempt to validate and elevate themselves by loudly trumpeting the superiority of their choices? Or is something else at play?

As it turns out, evidence suggests that fanboys aren't just raving fools. I'm not talking about anecdotal evidence, either. Various scientific studies have pointed to the existence of a basal process that, when one chooses between two roughly equally desirable items, causes the brain's perception of the two items to change significantly. The rejected item appears less desirable than it did before, while the chosen item is suddenly viewed as more desirable.

Perhaps the oldest study on the subject was conducted by Jack Brehm at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. Brehm set out to examine the relationship between personal choice and cognitive dissonance—the state of having conflicting ideas kicking around in your head. Brehm gathered 225 female students from the University and asked them to rate eight common objects (things like toasters, coffee makers, art books, and stopwatches) on an eight-point scale from least to most desirable.

As part of the study, Brehm selected two objects a given participant had rated within 0.5-1.5 points of each other, and he told that participant she could take one of the objects home. After the participant had made her choice, she was asked to indulge in some filler activities, then made to rate the items again. Here are the changes in ratings Brehm measured (and subsequently corrected for regression):

Source: Jack W. Brehm. "Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives" (1956)

The data are pretty clear: after making their selection, respondents ended up holding their chosen item in higher regard and thinking less of the item they left behind. Brehm measured similar results with a group of participants who, before rating items a second time, were given information cards listing both positive and negative details about their chosen and rejected items. Interestingly, he detected no significant rating shift when participants were randomly given one of the items. In other words, you're more likely to look objectively at the competition if your product was a gift than if you picked it yourself.

The results are pretty well known, and if you're introspective enough, you've probably noticed yourself behaving that way.

Now, here's where things get really interesting. A few years ago, several researchers at Harvard University (Matthew Lieberman, Kevin Ochsner, Daniel Gilbert, and Daniel Schacter) conducted a similar study on two groups of participants: one comprised of normal, healthy people, and another comprised of people suffering from anterograde amnesia—an inability to create new memories. If you've seen the movie Memento, you should be familiar with the condition. If not, well, you should probably watch it anyway. It's a good movie.

The Harvard researchers made participants rank pairs of art prints and choose one pair to take home. They also tested the participants' memories by asking them which pairs of prints they had selected and rejected. As you might expect, the amnesic participants couldn't remember which prints they had picked. But guess what happened when the participants were asked to re-rate the pairs? The amnesic subjects showed roughly the same level of bias toward their chosen pairs even though they had no memory of choosing them:

Source: Matthew D. Lieberman, Kevin N. Ochsner, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Daniel L. Schacter

"Do amnesics exhibit cognitive dissonance reduction?" (2001)

That must mean the change in perception happens at a much lower level than it might seem. Here's what the researchers concluded:

People tend to look unfavorably on individuals who change their attitudes to justify their behaviors because these individuals should be able to see that they are "just rationalizing" and thus realize that their new attitudes are glaringly inauthentic. Our results suggest, however, that the behavior-induced attitude-change process may not be consciously experienced. Because the results of automatic attitude processes are often experienced as a given by the environment rather than constructed by the mind, what looks like disingenuous rationalization from without may feel genuine from within (Bargh, 1989).

Are you starting to feel compassion for belligerent fanboys yet? Clearly, they can't help refusing to see reason. Their brains have automatically and unconsciously re-wired themselves to view their product of choice as markedly superior. Competition that might have seemed just as good before now appears clearly inferior to them. In their minds, everyone else is irrationally refusing to see the world as it is. Why wouldn't they get mad and write angry rants on message boards? To make matters worse, everyone seems to behave that way—yes, even you—albeit to varying degrees.

Still not ready to cut fanboys some slack? Another, more recent study gives us a glimpse of just how deep this attitude-change mechanism might run. Louisa Egan, Laurie Santos, and Paul Bloom of Yale University conducted a similar study on four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys. The children were asked to rate stickers in order of preference on a smiley-face scale. Based on those ratings, the researchers singled out three stickers with similar scores. They asked the kids to choose between the first two; once the kids had made a choice, the researchers made them choose between the sticker they'd rejected and the third sticker. A control group was randomly given one of the three stickers and asked to choose between the other two.

The capuchin monkeys were tested in a similar fashion, although instead of the smiley-face scale and stickers, researchers used different-colored M&Ms and determined preference by timing how long the monkeys took to retrieve each type of M&M. A system of cages and doors was used for the choosing phase, to make sure the monkeys didn't just grab both M&Ms on display and make a run for it. You can find out the exact methodology in the full paper, The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance (PDF).

Anyhow, according to the results, children and monkeys alike developed a bias against the rejected item when faced with the second choice. When the researchers took the original rejection process out of the equation, however, they detected no bias in favor of the third option. Here are the data:

Source: Louisa C. Egan, Laurie R. Santos, and Paul Bloom

"The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance" (2007)

If monkeys and four-year-old kids both exhibit this behavior, then we must be looking at a fairly basal mechanism. I'd love to dig deeper into the underlying causes, but that'll have to wait for another blog post. I'm sure some evolutionary psychologists have come up with a neat explanation of why we and our primate cousins have all been selected for this behavior, though. Perhaps we're hard-wired to keep chasing the same prey even if we see spot another, equally tasty-looking animal on the way, since the initial prey is more likely to be exhausted from running and thus easier to catch.

I should reiterate, by the way, that the behavior we've discussed only manifests itself when subjects choose between similarly desirable options—like, say, a GeForce GTX 560 and a Radeon HD 6870. As Brehm showed in his research, people don't alter their perception significantly after choosing a clearly preferred item over a clearly disliked one. To go back to my hasty speculation, maybe you're better off going after clearly bigger and easier-to-catch game even if it means starting the hunt from scratch.

In any case, the truth seems to be that we're all born irrational fanboys—every single one of us. Not everyone is going to spend entire evenings in their mom's basement debating the merits of Captain Kirk over Picard (who, by the way, is clearly the more skilled commanding officer), but we all possess a natural propensity to engage in that kind of behavior. Luckily, as humans, we're blessed with the ability to tone down natural behaviors and use higher levels of thought to see and interact with the world more rationally. All it takes is admitting that you have a problem...

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