Fanboys Are Crazy, Not Brand Loyal

The Internet has been abuzz this week with a column on the psychology of Fanboys. The piece, by David McRaney, basically dives into cognitive dissonance and its conflict with self-perception theory. These are two fairly well established principles, and McRaney is right to apply them here.

The logic is thus: our minds want to reinforce decisions we make, even when we're wrong. Our mind make a posteriori judgments, that is, we explain ourselves to ourselves after the fact. Are you upset that your Alienware laptop only gets 2 hours of battery life, while a MacBook Pro can go hours and hours without a charge? This emotion causes cognitive dissonance. That is, our minds drive us to think that our decisions are good and rational, so when we make a wrong decision, it creates a gap in our logic, a crevasse that must be filled. So, we fill it with illogical thinking.

Boy, do we ever fill it. We argue passionately that our laptop doesn't need more battery life, because it's meant to be portable, but not truly mobile. We argue that the Alienware uses much better graphics, and that justifies the shorter run time against the graphically challenged MacBook Pro. We might even lie to ourselves and say that the tests must be fraudulent, and Apple is overstating their battery longevity, while Alienware is understating its claims.

Depending on how passionate you get and where you vent these arguments, you might be a fanboy. I agree with McRaney up until this point. The fanboy is a creature beyond rational argument. That isn't to say he (or she, despite what McRaney claims) is wrong, it's just that rational arguments don't have the same effect. But McRaney is vastly overstating the effects of the various dissonant psychological symptoms and their contribution to the fanboy mindset. If you believe McRaney, fanboyism is a spectrum, and we're all fanboys about something, to varying degrees.

I don't buy it. Let's go through his argument to see where he falls apart.

McRaney says " the Internet changed the way people argue." No, the Internet changed with whom people argue, but not how. Does McRaney honestly believe that consumer electronics and tech commodities are really a unique case? That the Internet is the only place where, as he says, "men will defend their ego no matter how slight the insult"? Spoken like a true nerd, or at least someone who doesn't follow sports.

Ever seen a Mets fan and a Yankees fan argue? A Cowboys fan and, well, anyone else? These are fanboys as surely as you'll find on the comment board of any good tech Web site. They are justifying their current allegiance by forgetting the parts of the past and present that don't fit with their worldview. But sports are only a simple example. I would also say that wars have been started and fought for the same principles, especially wars of territory and culture. The Internet did not produce this phenomenon. It has existed for millennia.

McRaney claims this fanboy mindset is "just a component of branding." I think he's confusing brand loyalty, which marketers freely cultivate, and fanboyism. It's like the difference between a healthy, loving relationship, and a relationship with an obsessed, possibly abusive partner.

This is not what marketers want. If anything, fanboyism only hurts their cause. If the only people to buy Apple products were the fanboys, Apple would be a dwindling franchise. Fanboyism hurts sales more than it helps them. People are suspicious of fanboys for their obvious irrationality. The more vocal the fanboy crowd, the more the brand becomes associated with irrational people who won't listen to a logical argument.

This is more obvious in politics. Without professing a loyalty either way, the current Tea Party movement was saddled with a public perception that the cause was dominated by the most obsessed, irrational and even hateful voters. Even when studies were released showing an unexpectedly rational group with a logical philosophy behind them, the party was still dismissed.

What marketers want more than anything is new customers. Marketers need growth; the entire economy needs growth. Marketers are not cynical or stupid enough to believe that rabid fanboyism is the key to success. They use the same psychological tests that McRaney read about in his Psych 101 textbook before he wrote this story. Marketers are trying to convince and adapt, and that runs contrary to the fanboy mindset.

The most egregious error McRaney makes is pushing the a posteriori argument for fanboyism. You justify your current likes and dislikes with a rational argument, but in reality your opinions were formed well in the past and they influence your decision making to the point that you'll eschew logic and reason.

Nonsense. I agree that past decisions and preferences do influence our current behavior. I've often believed that musical taste is shaped this way. We meet someone we admire very young, and our musical taste springs from this admiration. But this is a sort of empathy and drive for acceptance, a perfectly rational survival mechanism, and not the irrational decision making of a fanboy.

I own a Zune HD. Microsoft gave it to me, but I had been considering the purchase, and had I not already owned similar devices (iPod touch and Archos 605), I might have bought one myself. I love my iPods, all of them, and I think they are wonderful products. But when something better comes along, or even something significantly different enough to spark my interest, I'll give it a try.

I've owned an iPhone, a few Palm phones (Treo and Pre), and now I use a Google Nexus One, an Android phone. None of these phones were perfect. If something better comes along tomorrow, I'll check it out. Even if it's a Microsoft device, or a Symbian device, or something I've never tried before. I also own a MacBook Pro, but I still have an older Dell laptop that is a real workhorse, never let me down.

The fanboy is not created by branding or marketing. The fanboy is an obsessive personality, and that obsession has simply latched onto a material good. I'd guess that if BMW stopped making cars in the 60s, the BMW fanboys I know would be Audi fanboys instead, or maybe fans of something completely different.

Fanboyism has nothing to do with the specific product at hand. It's a personality type, removed from the influence and motivations of the manufacturer. If you're going to be an jerk, you're going to be an jerk, whether you're arguing over the Boston Celtics or the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

There is one point McRaney makes that worries me on a personal level, because he might be right. He talks about the Endowment effects, which makes you "feel like the things you own are superior to the things you do not." As a reviewer and tech pundit, this worries me more than anything else he discussed.

I've reviewed hundreds of products, but I've only purchased one for a review. All the others were provided by the manufacturer or other interested party. Most were loaned. A small handful were given as samples or "gifts." I've personally never made money from these gifts. I donate old phones to various charitable groups, though I do hold onto them for quite a while. Until they are no longer valuable for comparison purposes.

Until that gift product leaves my possession, though, I own it. I worry about how that affects my reviews, and whether it causes bias. Some might consider this sort of gifting a form of bribery, and if we journalists aren't careful and honest with our audience, there might be some truth to that.

The one product I purchased? The Apple iPhone. Apple has sent me review units in the past, but not an iPhone. It was worth the money, the time I spent in line at the Apple store and even the contract agreement I signed for me to have the iPhone to review. When the new iPhone comes out, I will buy it because it's important for me to have, professionally.

At least, that's what I'll be telling myself.