The Psychology Of A Fanboy: Why You Keep Buying The Same Stuff

The Psychology of a Fanboy: Why You Keep Buying the Same Stuff

None of us want to admit it, but chances are we're all fanboys in some area. Whether it's a particular brand of software, a gadget or a political leaning, we often rally behind companies and ideologies without even realising it. Here's why we become fanboys and how to prevent it from happening to you.

Photos by Adam Radosavljevic, Nemo, Geralt, PublicDomainPictures, hoyasmeg, Michael McDonald, mendhak

By definition, a fanboy (or fangirl) is someone who defends their favourite phone/politician/city/browser/OS/game/console/genre/whatever while attacking everything else. Whether it's the blind trust in the next iPhone, a dispute about the NBN, or a fervent argument for the PS4 over the Xbox One, we like to pick sides and stick to them. This alone is obnoxious, but it causes more than just minor annoyances: it means we attach ourselves to brands and can't think critically about the choices we make when shopping.

As a result we waste money and buy crappy products based solely on who makes them. There's no single reason this happens, but we do know a few things about basic human nature that help explain why a lot of people end up with fanboy tendencies.

Social Identity Theory Colours Your Worldview

The Psychology of a Fanboy: Why You Keep Buying the Same Stuff

All kinds of factors play into fanboyism, but there's one theory that explains where it starts: social identity theory. Social identity theory suggests that your idea of self-concept is derived from the social group you identify with. When you're part of a group, you're more likely to sympathise and treat other members of the group with rewards. Essentially, it helps you define "us" and "them," which our brain likes to do.

We define ourselves into groups in all kinds of ways, but one way is through the stuff we own. In The Psychologist, it's suggested that our association with our belongings changes us at a neural level, and that eventually transfers over to our group as a whole:

From a neural perspective, this absorption of objects into self-identity may be more than mere metaphor. In 2010, Kyungmi Kim and Marcia Johnson scanned participants' brains as they allocated objects to a container marked as 'mine', imagining that they were going to own them, or to a container marked with someone else's name. Extra activity was observed in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) in response to the sight of 'owned' items, compared with control items allocated to others. The same area of MPC was activated when participants rated how much various adjectives described their own personality. 'Areas of the brain that are known to be involved in thinking about the self also appear to be involved when we create associations between external things and ourselves through ownership,' says Kim...

Like a uniform, our possession of specific objects and brands can also signal our membership of social groups, both to others and to ourselves. The success of the Apple brand has been attributed in part to people's desire to show that they belong to a consumer tribe with connotations of 'coolness'.

Why does this matter in terms of fanboys? When we're part of that group, we'll defend our group with fervour. Psychologist Jamie Madigan explains how this works in the context of game consoles:

Part of who you are -- and how you communicate that to others -- is defined by what groups you belong to. And we naturally want to belong to high-status groups, right? OK, fine, but everything is relative; a group isn't high status unless there's a low status group for it to be contrasted against. So not only do some people identify themselves as Xbox fans, they attack PlayStation owners in order to raise their status. This tendency is human nature, the researchers concluded, and a lot of other data support them. What's more, we're perfectly willing to do it at the drop of a hat.

These put-downs aren't always a conscious choice, but once we pick a side, whether it's Windows versus Mac, Xbox versus Playstation, paid versus free software or anything else, we're going to create an "other." Once we do that, we're already accidentally on our way to fanboyism.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy Helps Companies Hold You Hostage

The Psychology of a Fanboy: Why You Keep Buying the Same Stuff

Another possible cause of fanboyism is what economists call the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy means you'll spend more money (and time) to salvage a purchase you've already made. We've mentioned this before in context of upgrading gadgets and in finances, but it fuels fanboyism as well.

Sunk cost plays into fanboyism for a simple reason: the cost to switch from one thing to another is often obnoxiously high. You can't just jump ship from the PS3 to the Xbox and keep your library of games. You can't go from Android to Apple and use the apps you've already purchased, or the time you've spent learning the OS. Switching platforms involves investing in new apps, getting used to the new system, and buying new copies of software you already own. It's horrible and since you've already spent so much money on the product you have right now, the last thing you want to do is spend more money to purchase those things again.

So, your brain defends your platform and you inadvertently become a fanboy.

Choice Supportive Bias Causes You To Defend Your Choices

The Psychology of a Fanboy: Why You Keep Buying the Same Stuff

Those two theories explain how fanboyism starts, but the real clincher is choice supportive bias. This is our tendency to retroactively give positive attributes to the option we picked. Essentially, it's why we'll defend what we purchased without any real critical thought.

Choice supportive bias is a huge player in fanboyism and you'll often go so far as to create false, positive memories about a product just to support your view. You Are Not So Smart gives this example of how choice supportive bias works:

You have several options, like say for a new television. Before you make a choice you tend to compare and contrast all the different qualities of all the televisions on the market.

Which is better, Samsung or Sony, plasma or LCD, 1080p or 1080i -- ugh, so many variables! You eventually settle on one option, and after you make your decision you then look back and rationalize your actions by believing your television was the best of all the televisions you could have picked.

We do this to combat buyer's remorse and the anxiety that comes with it. The downside is that when we start justifying our choices, we do it loudly to anyone who will listen so we don't question ourselves. Essentially, once you've made your choice, you have to defend that choice to yourself and in a lot of cases that defence seeps into your conversations. Thus is born a Nintendon't generation.

How To Break Free Of Your Fanboyism

The Psychology of a Fanboy: Why You Keep Buying the Same Stuff

Unfortunately, a lot of the roots of fanboyism are embedded in human nature, so there's not really a lot you can do about them. It's mostly about recognising the fact that we're all prone to becoming fanboys. Doing so means you turn a blind eye to new options and you inadvertently support a brand or product that you don't actually care that much about. Couple that with the general fact that we're all capable of being jerks online and you have a recipe for a vitriolic, idiotic and hyperbolic fanboy argument every day of the week.

While there's no real cure, You Are Not So Smart recommends taking a break when you find yourself getting riled up:

So, the next time you reach for the mouse and get ready to launch an angry litany of reasons why your favourite -- thing -- is better than the other person's, hesitate. Realise you have your irrational reasons, and so do they, and nothing will be gained by your proselytizing.

Likewise, you can root out the problem from the start and break free of your brand loyalty by treating it like a bad habit and remember that upgrades aren't always necessary. It takes some work and self-reflection to really beat back your inner fanboy, but it's worth it in the end.


    what would the psychology of someone who isn't a fanboy of anything? some of us understand the merits of each independent system.
    eg android is more customisable but iOS is easier to use
    windows computers are more powerful but macs last longer
    ps4/Xbox one are essentially the same thing. previously Xbox had been tailored around online integration and ps4 on a social experience.
    PC gaming is more detailed but consoles are more relaxed and social.
    there are merits to practically anything. just have to compare the ups and downs and pick the option best suited for your needs.
    so tell me. what's my psychology :p


      It means you don't belong anywhere :(

      You have only mentioned tech products here.

      That is but once facet of where fanboyism can be. Although it is where that word is most used.

        politically I vote for the party that suits the needs of my region more effectively.
        food I eat what is tasty to me and don't complain about the food others like.
        from toys to educational methods I pretty much analyse the options available and pick the best suited to the situation.
        I just see it as what doesn't work in one situation might in another.

        I like android for Paranoid Android ROM. but I am planning to try BlackBerry for my next platform. I wouldn't personally use iPhone. but I reccomend them to anyone who want a smart phone that's simple to use.

        the closest thing I've got to fanboyism is more like antifanboyism. brands or idealism I avoid due to negative experiences across multiple events. eg budget phones. don't see how anyone can tolerate the issues they have. course I've been using smart phones since the imate jasjam. so I'm used to quality products.

          Do you have a favourite cola beverage? Most swear by their choice in cola, but time and time again blind taste tests show peoples ability to pick which one they're drinking is no better than dumb luck.

      You will be a fanboi somewhere else in life. This could be in your breakfast cereal, your car brand, your grocery shopping destination.

      You have to be, otherwise you would spend all your time making evaluative decisions.

        Not really. Course I'm high functioning autism. So being overly analytical isn't strange to me. If I've two identical products I'll pick the one with a better price/warranty or other benefits. If these are the same. I'll just take what I encountered last.

      Thing is though.. I can sit here all day and debate the finer points of all brands being good depending on who you are.. for some it is the right choice, for others not.. and so on.

      The difference is that is just the surface.. what you actually end up buying regardless of the debating points you can come up with is largely based on what this article is talking about.

      Sure there is extreme fanboyism but for the most people it's not that cut and dry, on the surface. In your following post (9:02am) you highlight some clear biases and while you would not openly bad mouth those things you would not buy yourself, the bias still exists.

    I realized that I had two or three of everything, two iphones, two Canon 5Ds and two ipads, one android tablet and so on (I have a list of ten things). So this trend makes things more obvious. Now I apply a "hit the wall rule".
    Therefore I have to demonstrate to myself what can't I do on the existing device?
    Using this logic, I queued all day to get the iphone 4 (I will never queue again). I skipped the 4S as I considered the difference too incremental but the better camera tempted me.
    I got the iphone 5 but probably won't upgrade it unless something breaks and the changing size of the SIM is a PITA and acted as a disincentive (obviously not enough),
    So in your assessment, apply the "hit the wall rule" meaning something is not possible on the old item, especially if something breaks.
    For me there is no social element and I don't have to prove anything.
    I suppose I'm a gadget head and I would like to see at least one example of everything like an andriod tablet or a MacBook Pro or a gaming laptop.
    The gaming laptop is a good example, I have a Samsung Series 9 for normal windows and the MSI GT780 for gaming. I'd love to upgrade it to the GS70 but the GT780 performs very well and I'd feel bad about the superceeded laptop. The Samsung Series 9 is good for battery life in non gaming situations.

    Fanboys are also those poor people who really hope their lives will dramatically improve if they possess the latest thing. It has nothing to do with need or rational choice. It goes beyond social identity and becomes about self-worth and purpose in life. They link owning the thing with success and failure, and with having a purpose in life.

    The cycle continues because they gradually realise that owning the latest thing doesn't change anything and once the novelty has worn off, the familiar feelings come back.... and so on.

    Here I thought I was a proud Fanboy owning a iPhone 3GS which for years has almost been part of my arm. I certainly wouldn't buy tech to "belong" or change what others think about me. People need to think, is the new feature your current product has really worth your hard earned cash?
    We also need to remember that we are all different, things like aesthetics, security, money saving, OS mods, specific features are going to be appreciated differently by all. Naturally we'll defend the product we have over another one. Products get you from A to B and that's all they do. No need to get emotional about which brand or upgrade does what silly/clever feature or not.
    And yes, I do want a new iPhone. Will I get one... wife says: NO

    Last edited 14/09/13 8:04 am

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