Each September, as Apple rolls out its new iPhone, the previous iteration seems instantly obsolete, spurring demand for the shiny new upgrade. The pattern uses a marketing trick that Alfred Sloan invented as CEO of General Motors 90-some years ago to help bolster auto sales by tapping into human psychology and the desire to have whatever was latest and greatest.

This isn’t entirely benign, according to research by Chicago Booth’s Ed O’Brien. As people become conditioned to expect something better in the future, they grow less satisfied with the present, he finds in a study comprising a series of experiments. O’Brien calls it “the ‘next’ effect.”

“Better futures may lead people to perceive more flaws in the present than they would have perceived otherwise,” he writes. “Messages of a better tomorrow may indeed inspire people—to perceive today as worse.”

Participants in the study interacted with tech products: an art-making computer game in the first experiment, a virtual reality shooting game in the second, and a 360-degree digital city tour in the third. Some participants were simply there to play with the tech, while others were tested on O’Brien’s hypothesis that learning of an imminent upgrade would cause people to be more critical of the product and enjoy it less.

In the first experiment, some participants saw a flyer for a game called Art Time, which said that it had been released about a year earlier. Others saw a flyer for Art Time 2, which was soon to be released. Both groups then played Art Time. Those who saw that a new version would soon be out reported enjoying the game less and reported more perceived bugs in its software. A third group who saw a flyer detailing an update for a related but different game (Paint Wars 2) enjoyed Art Time just as much as those who didn’t know about Art Time 2.

The two other experiments followed similar designs, having some participants play with the 360-degree tour software and the VR game without knowing about an imminent upgrade, and having others play with the understanding that a newer version was coming.

Focus on the game, not the upgrade

In an experiment, some participants were told that a better version of a video game would be coming out soon, while others weren’t. Those told about the upgrade found the current version to be less enjoyable and buggier—but another set of participants didn't experience diminished enjoyment knowing that a different game was getting improved.

Both experiments also tested other hunches.

In the VR experiment, a third group of participants saw both the announcement for a game upgrade and a “Blast from the Past!” page describing older versions of shooting games such as Atari’s 1978 Space Invaders. While the first two groups exhibited similar tendencies to enjoy the game more or less depending on their knowledge of an upgrade, the third group reported no dip in enjoyment when reminded of how much progress similar games had made. However, this group did experience more “bugs” than the no-knowledge group, albeit fewer than the group that was only looking forward to an upgrade.

In the 360-degree tour experiment, both groups went through an extra step. As in the other trials, participants who had no knowledge of a coming upgrade enjoyed their virtual tour of Salvador, Brazil, more than those who were told that a better version would soon be available. However, after the experience, participants in both groups were given the chance to opt out of a second tour (including tasks they would need to complete, as they did the first time). They could offer $0 to $2 to skip the task, and the participant with the highest bid would be exempt. On average, people who knew of a coming upgrade bet 28 cents more than the other group to skip the second task.

The findings suggest that sometimes how much people like or don’t like the things they have could be more psychological than physical. Is your phone actually slower now, or is your mind looking forward to a newer, faster phone? Knowledge of an imminent new release causes people to “infer that there must have been something to improve upon (or else, why was a better one needed in the first place?),” O’Brien writes. “As people continually await exciting things still to come, they may be continually dissatisfied by exciting things already here.”

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