Aug 16 2011

Brand Loyalty

Are you a Mac or PC? Do you have any strong feelings about this brand rivalry? Would you take it personally if your preferred brand was the target of criticism?

New research indicates that you would.

It is already established “textbook” psychology that people have egos – we have a self-image that we protect. We like to look at ourselves in a positive light and will engage in motivated reasoning, denial, and even rewriting history in order to protect that self-image. There is also what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error – we tend to explain the actions of others based upon internal or inherent factors, but we explain our own behavior based upon situational factors. For example, if you see a mother harshly discipline a child in public you might infer that she is an angry person or an impatient parent. But if you harshly discipline your own child in public you are likely to explain your behavior as an understandable reaction to the situation; your child was relentlessly disobedient and perhaps you were stressed and in a hurry.

In order words – we give ourselves every benefit of the doubt, while we tend to be quick to be judgmental about others.

The question of the new research is this – does this egocentric bias extend to brands to which we are loyal? How much do we internalize our brand choices? The researchers found that subjects would continue to rate their favorite brands (what they call self-connected brands)  highly, even after being presented with negative information about those brands. They interpreted a brand failure as a personal failure, and engaged all their defense mechanisms to protect the image of the brand to which they had identified.

Unlike with the self, however, brand loyalty has its limits. We are stuck with ourselves, but we can abandon a self-connected brand if we learn unacceptable negative information about it. So we will protect our self-image by protecting our self-connected brands, but if a brand goes too far then we protect ourselves by jettisoning the brand, perhaps feeling betrayed and deceived. We can engage situational factors to explain away our misplaced loyalty, once again protecting our self-image.

The same psychology extends to other entities – such as sports teams, political parties, geographic regions, religions and philosophies – anything to which we can self-identify. This all seems to be an extension of our tribal nature, our tendency to view the world as us vs them.

Politics in the US is rather polarized lately, so it is an excellent opportunity to watch this phenomenon in action. I often get involved in political discussions with friends in which one party or one politician is either passionately defended or attacked. I can’t help wondering – if the exact same situation occurred but to the other side, would this person be just as passionately arguing the other way? If, for example, what they are bitterly complaining about Obama were true of Bush would they be defending rather that criticizing the same behavior?

I have also noticed that the fundamental attribution error applies to these situations. If you like Obama then you are likely to explain any apparent failings through situational factors, while if you do not like him you are likely to invoke explanations that are about his beliefs and inherent weaknesses – while simultaneously reverting to situational factors to explain the exact same failings in Bush (or vice versa depending on your politics). So, Bush ran up the deficit because of a bad economy and the aftermath of 9/11, while Obama ran up the deficit because he is a socialist. Or, if you are so inclined, Bush ran up the deficit because of fiscal irresponsibility and incompetence, while Obama did so because he was saddled with two wars and a recession.

(Disclaimer – I am not making any of the above arguments myself, nor am I interested in analyzing the various reasons for the deficit or the relative virtues and vices of these two presidents, nor am I arguing for any kind of equivalence. I am just repeating the kinds of arguments I have heard from both sides. Of course I know that I probably just engaged your own political brand loyalty with these examples and many of you will not be able to resist defending your self-connected brand in the comments.)

Being aware of this strong human bias to defend anything to which we self-connect (not just our own literal selves) is empowering, in a metacognitive way. It potentially gives us another filter for our own thoughts and behaviors. Of course, this type of metacognition can get infinitely recursive – we can feel good about ourselves for being self-aware and not giving in to ego-protection, but feeling good about that is just another form of ego-gratification, and so on. We probably cannot get away from our fundamental psychology – but we can channel our biases in a healthy and productive way. So I guess it’s OK to feel good about being rational, even if doing so is a little bit irrational.

Now excuse me as I sign off my PC and enjoy a diet Coke.

35 responses so far

35 Responses to “Brand Loyalty”

  1. Peejon 16 Aug 2011 at 8:14 am

    I frequently jettison my brain.

  2. skrileon 16 Aug 2011 at 8:18 am

    Politics is such a crappy arena for a skeptic. No one likes me because they can never count on my opinion. I’ve noticed this with my parents recently. They have such strong brand loyalty that seem to only seek confirmation of positive and evidence against the other side. When a skeptical argument is made running against that brand, well…yeah, all hell breaks loose.

    I find it curious more than offensive. Maybe that’s what’s so offensive.

  3. banyanon 16 Aug 2011 at 8:30 am

    @skrile: I have the same problem. At work we sit and chat, and it seems like often the content of the communication is an expression of opinion A followed by agreement. When I express skepticism, people look at me like I’m a jerk, because the communication wasn’t really about the truth value of opinion A, it was about raising a flag and then rallying under it, and I went and ruined it for everyone.

  4. Alan Morganon 16 Aug 2011 at 8:43 am

    It’s like a game, to defend what one likes and score points against the ‘other/s’. The errors are fun to make, which possibly adds to the difficulty of thinking more reasonably.

    Additionally, linux for the win. 🙂

  5. sirrealon 16 Aug 2011 at 8:55 am

    PC? . . . PC??? . . . And I thought I could trust you!

    Thanks for a useful information, as always. It goes with the references (many to your writings) I will use when I write my magnum opus (but don’t hold your breath).

  6. LarryCoonon 16 Aug 2011 at 9:55 am

    So enjoyable to read Steve’s blog posts over my morning Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, while contemplating the sheer malevolence of those who do the same while eating Post Raisin Bran.

  7. BlindChristianon 16 Aug 2011 at 10:29 am

    These days I’m entirely in the Macintosh camp as, yes, I am really blind and because Apple is the only mainstream computer and handheld device manufacturer to provide 100% accessibility for people with vision impairment (PWVI) out-of-the-box.

    For many years Windows had a major lead in this area but the annoying logistics of the MS requirement for one to buy access technology from a third party, usually costing about $1000 to just be able to use a PC with speech output, is both clumsy and expensive. A few years ago, Apple built its own screen reader and now it comes with virtually every product they sell and, at no extra cost, they provide an excellent accessibility experience.
    On the political side of accessibility, I think that vendors of inaccessible products are hanging a virtual “whites only” sign on their devices and are perpetrating a level of apartheid against people with disabilities.

    On the broader question of skepticism and issues of politics, history, economics and other “soft” sciences, I find that this community tends to steer away from controversies lest we offend each other on issues of where we hold near religious levels of belief. To the libertarians in our community, I ask that if Adam Smith said that the free market system requires “rational actors” and that recent science shows that humans are incapable of rational behavior, doesn’t this mean that the system can’t really work properly? I ask this question not because I believe strongly either way but I never hear this question asked by skeptics who, given books like “The Believing Brain,” still live with the assumption that a free market system can function with irrational actors.

    Happy Hacking,
    Gonz BLinko

    BTW: I stopped calling myself Blind Christian in all settings but when I play blues harmonica (where the name came from) how can I change my user name on this site?

  8. hcuevaon 16 Aug 2011 at 11:21 am

    Listen, Steve, we all love you, you know it. However, it seems you haven’t looked at the evidence when it comes to macs vs. pcs. It’s overwhelmingly in favor of macs.

    You’re a mac superiority denier. Or perhaps you’re a mac lover “but you don’t know it yet”, sort of like some atheists who call themselves agnostics or something.

  9. debunkcreationon 16 Aug 2011 at 11:56 am

    Mac vs PC is so 1990s…. it now comes down to the operating system — OS X versus Windows versus Linux (all three more or less run on the same hardware architecture, based on Intel chips). Or, since all major operating systems these days are based on Unix, with one exception, it’s basically Windows versus everything else 🙂

    (Die hard Linux user here, BTW)

  10. daedalus2uon 16 Aug 2011 at 12:01 pm

    I agree the better term is “tribal loyalty” rather than “brand loyalty”, because it reflects loyalty to other members of your “tribe”, where tribal affiliation is determined by brand usage. The best fans are the NASCAR fans.

    Where half of them feel that simply buying a sponsor’s products is participation in the activity the sponsor is supporting.

    I think there is real potential for adverse consequences when branding is used in politics. Humans are susceptible to being caught up in brand loyalty and that is a part of the politics behind many wars. This relates to my hypothesis on xenophobia, that when two people meet and try to communicate, they do a Turing Test and if the error rate is too high (i.e. one person “fails” the Turing Test), then xenophobia is triggered via the uncanny valley effect.

    Brand choice gets incorporated into cultural practices and is a component of what determines xenophobia (according to this hypothesis).

    A serious danger in using branding and brand loyalty in politics is that it does bring out xenophobia. Despite the protests of the highly partisan that they are not racist or bigoted, their actions belie their statements. Partisans in politics have committed violence.

    Now the followers of a particular political brand are supporting the sponsors of that political brand by doing whatever the brand sponsors want in terms of policy. Religion is another “brand” that invokes highly charged feelings divorced from logic and reality. When Fox News ran a story on atheists protesting using a cross as a religious icon at the 9/11 memorial, they got 8,000 death threats. Limiting brand loyalty so that it doesn’t extend into xenophobia is important to preventing the adverse effects of xenophobia from resulting due to brand loyalty.

  11. locutusbrgon 16 Aug 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I always find politics and religion to be entertaining conversations. People always assume that I am going to respond a certain way based on my past responses. I tend to try to have a specific response to a specific issue. I tend to agree with the comedian Lewis Black that our two party system is ” a bowl of shit looking at itself in the mirror”. So I tend to isolate my opinion from party lines. People often come to me expecting support based on a opinion for their issue. “He’s the skeptic”. My previous response led them to believe I have a particular affiliation, liberal/conservative. They often are surprised by my response and then immediately try to determine my political leanings. Always a entertaining experience.
    I have very little tribal brand loyalty. I love to question myself as to what is the real motivation for my love of ______. I often question my sacred cow. I still know I have them but I try to minimize. As an X Global Warming Agnostic I know letting go can be tough. The day I let that bomb drop at the dinner table my extended family though I was a pod person.

  12. Bronze Dogon 16 Aug 2011 at 3:10 pm

    XKCD weighed in recently on Mac/PC. I’m mostly PC right now because that’s what I learned to work with, so if something goes wrong, I can probably find out something about what happened and where. Macs, not so much, but that might be a bias from my Mac-loving days when I’d sometimes get a “system error” crash with no description beyond an ID number.

    For politics, I think I’m resistant to the camp effect right now, since I’m not happy with either of the two big parties here in the US, though I might end up with a different camp effect from being “independent” along with other dissatisfied people.

  13. VRAlbanyon 16 Aug 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Advertisers have probably known all this for a while.

    I have noticed a lot of other companies following the Mac advertizing scheme of:

    Person 1: “I’m a [product we want to sell you]”

    Person 2: “and I’m a [rival product]”

    Person 1 (who is usually hip/young/attractive) casually and condescendingly observes some problems Person 2 is having, while Person 2 (goofy/bumbling/stubborn) stubbornly bumbles around with their product.
    2 is either subtly convinced by the wily #1 that the other product is better, or they bumble around until the commercial ends, leaving consumers with a clear idea of which product they should form a strong self-identity with.

    … or maybe I watch too much TV.

  14. SARAon 16 Aug 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I wonder if there is a definable and generalized line that will cause people to jettison their loyalty. Would it correlate with certain personality traits or be independent of personality?

    When Harold Camping was so notoriously and obviously wrong, I wonder what percentage of followers jettisoned their loyalty to him, or even to Christianity generally? How many people were able to rationalize and continue their loyalty.

    It would be interesting to do a study on the apocalyptic prediction believers because you know they will eventually be disappointed, where as if you ran it on Apple lovers, you don’t have any guarantee of a situation that would cause people to jettison their loyalty.

    Sadly, there is usually a prediction every couple of years, so it wouldn’t be hard to find the group and do the study. 2012 is just around the corner. Someone needs to get on this.

  15. nybgruson 16 Aug 2011 at 6:38 pm


    You might be interested in this article as it has a discussion about exactly your question and a little more as well.

  16. NobleSavageon 16 Aug 2011 at 7:30 pm


    Also check out this book, When Prophecy Fails. It addresses the very questions you asked about:

    Written in the 50’s by social psychologists who infiltrate an apocalyptic UFO cult to study what happens when the prophecies fail to materialize. Turns out the more time, effort and expense you put into your loyalty to a group, the less likely you are to abandon it, even if it’s proven to be false without a doubt. I think this ties into brand loyalty in that it’s hard to admit your brand of whatever is not the best in the world when you think about how much money and/or time you’ve spent on it. “I’m a smart person… and would a smart person spend money on a brand that wasn’t the best? Of course not.”

  17. rlquinn1980on 16 Aug 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Doesn’t it all boil down to cognitive dissonance?

    “I would never like something that was inherently ; therefore, this fault in what I like is really because .”

    . . . a PC?? Oh, Dr. Novella, say it ain’t so! I’m sure you’re so busy you have no time to really shop for a Mac, and academia never pays enough. You’d get a Mac if you could.


  18. rlquinn1980on 16 Aug 2011 at 9:02 pm

    (Mind deleting my previous comment? Apparently, the comment box does not like to translate greater and lesser than signs.)

    Doesn’t it all boil down to cognitive dissonance?

    “I would never like something that was inherently [insert negative adjective here]; therefore, this fault in what I like is really because [insert situational excuse here].”

    . . . a PC?? Oh, Dr. Novella, say it ain’t so! I’m sure you’re so busy you have no time to really shop for a Mac, and academia never pays enough. You’d get a Mac if you could.


  19. thequiet1on 16 Aug 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Poor, naive Dr. Novella. You thought your political examples would spark defensive arguments in your readers more readily than the operating system of choice? Come down from your ivory tower 🙂

    I’ve seen a lot of fanboyism within the PC market, mainly between those who prefer Intel or AMD CPU’s and NVIDIA or ATI GPU’s.

    And for the record, I’m a PC man. I tried to buy an apple product once, but I didn’t pass the ubiquitous application criteria.

  20. Abrahaon 17 Aug 2011 at 12:48 am

    I think it’s worth mentioning that fundamental attribution error has a cultural basis (at least pattern). People in the West tend to think in agency—”people do things”. In Eastern countries such as India, China, Singapore however, people tend to attribute actions to circumstances—things happen as a result of preceding circumstances—which usually fits reality better.

    By the way, I happen to be not only a PC man but a Linux and NVidia and Intel man as opposed to Mac and Windows and ATI and AMD respectively. And yes, I naively think I have good reasons for my preferences.

  21. eiskrystalon 17 Aug 2011 at 4:09 am

    Apple actually turned me off for being “too” popular in their recent products. Although i won’t begrudge them their rise to fame.

    If you want to see a wonderful example of brand loyalty somewhere between politics and religion, mention on a forum full of english how stupid and undemocratic they are for having a royal family.

    Even if moments before said english were joking how silly the royals can be sometimes, the sudden circling of the wagons will literally make a wooshing noise because they are “our royal family”.

  22. SteveAon 17 Aug 2011 at 6:45 am

    eiskrystal: “stupid and undemocratic”?

    Going off topic a little but…

    ‘Stupid’ may be a matter of opinion, but I’m not sure where ‘undemocractic’ comes from. Beyond the formality of rubber-stamping legislation, the reigning monarch has no say in the political process. Members of the Royal Family have influence through the media, but no more than any other celebrities.

    There was a press report a while back that said a lot of US citizens had watched the UK Parliamentary Channel and thought that the middle-aged female MP Betty Boothroyd (then the Speaker if the House of Commons) was actually the Queen. It was quite funny to think of Her Maj. sitting in the Speaker’s chair yelling at the commoners. Perhaps this is how these misconceptions spread.

    For info:

    (Macs rule, even if I do have to pay the dollar price in pounds)

  23. nybgruson 17 Aug 2011 at 7:13 am

    SteveA: lol

  24. rezistnzisfutlon 17 Aug 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I tend to be a PC guy who prefers AMD, ASUS mobos and nvidia VGUs, mostly for their overclocking capabilities, integration and scalability. I’ve deviated on occasion when, after doing some research, I’ve felt other products were better, or rather more suitable for me at the time. I generally prefer Windows and UNIX because I know most about them and I’m not so much into Apple products, mostly because I like to mix and match components and build my own computers and I know I’ll get support for them with Windows.

    There are definite die-hard fans of products one way or another. I prefer to research what is regarded as the best and most suitable for me, though I admit I stay away from Apple mostly because I like to build my own and don’t want to have to deal with things like itunes, etc (which is why I have a Cowon MP3 player and Droid phone).

  25. sonicon 17 Aug 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Sports is of interest here-
    There are life-long fans who support the home team no matter.
    There are those who support the home team when they are winning.
    There are those who support whichever team is winning.
    And of course fans can get rabid.

    It seems this would be a very good area of study as it is not unusual for a person to be any of the above and willing to admit it.
    What are the percentages, motivations…

    So, for example, the differences between the guy who is proud that he follows the Cubs (longtime losers of baseball) would an interesting comparison to those who supported the Miami Heat (basketball team that tried to buy the championship by bringing in two highly paid players) after the personnel moves.

  26. atheist daughteron 17 Aug 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks for an illuminating post. I now understand why I felt so disappointed and even a bit shaken when someone told me that Apple has one of the worst track records, environmentally speaking, among electronics brands. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back, my identity was threatened, and I was torn between being an environmentalist and a Mac user (both things that, even now, make me feel positive about myself when I write them – more evidence of the ego-promoting effect of these brands and affiliations and identities).

    I definitely agree that the meta-cognition thing, while it may be helpful, is not enough to really change patterns of thinking. I have known about the FAE for years, but it doesn’t stop me from making it constantly, like everyone else. However, I do catch myself sometimes and realize how hypocritical I’m being.

  27. eiskrystalon 18 Aug 2011 at 3:55 am

    ‘Stupid’ may be a matter of opinion, but I’m not sure where ‘undemocractic’ comes from.

    From a different forum where we were told that since the queen was still around and that she is (and i should point out only technically) the commander in chief of the british forces we weren’t a “proper” democracy.

    It was most amusing.

  28. PharmD28on 18 Aug 2011 at 4:10 pm

    “we can feel good about ourselves for being self-aware and not giving in to ego-protection, but feeling good about that is just another form of ego-gratification, and so on”

    For me the whole process of self reflection, seeking reality in politics for example is endless and tiring. I think I am very self aware as I am critical of my own assumptions in politics, but this awareness does not leave me with gratification, it leaves me drained and feeling hopeless, especially these days….

  29. ChrisHon 18 Aug 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Well, I kind of miss the CPM operating system that was on our first homebrew computer.

    But then again, I really miss the batch mode editing that I used to do with Boeing’s CMedit on the Cyber Star (I could serially run several time series parameter studies by changing the data file by putting CMedit code in the command file, I’d submit the job before going home, and get to work with several plots being printed out on the VAX the next morning).

    When we bought our first commercial home computer we bought a PC only because the Apple computers were much more expensive (and there were no MACs). I still miss Lotus’ AmiPro word processioning program. Even the version I used in the early 1990s was more intuitive than MS Word 2010!

    I did have iTunes on my computer for a while, but deleted it. I am not very fond of Windows Media Player either. So my choice in mp3 player is just “anything but Apple or Microsoft.” Though I might get a Zune just for the web access so I don’t have to get a “smart phone.”

    I should say that about the time I was programming with actual paper cards I was a Republican, and at least up to a decade later. I changed “brands” from the party of “less government” with those who wanted to legislate our lives (Pat Robertson), and as fierce independents we actively celebrated the defeat of a lawyer friend who actually argued in front of our nation’s Supreme Court against our state’s “top two” primary system (he was being paid by the Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians). We have no intention of ever declaring a political party, fortunately he is a good sport.

    Honestly, I thought from listening to SGU that Dr. Novella edited that on a MAC. Oh, well.

  30. HHCon 19 Aug 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Enjoy your coke, the rumors that Coca Cola drinks have been contaminated by terrorists is false!

  31. Nicolason 19 Aug 2011 at 10:01 pm

    When mentioning bias in politics, I first think of the Tea Party. They are always protesting that the government is taking away their rights with their socialist policies, however, they were not on the streets when the Patriot Act was introduced.

    Or maybe I just don’t like them cause I’m latino.

  32. Donna B.on 20 Aug 2011 at 12:21 am

    Since jr. high at least I’ve worried that I don’t have a “fan” gene. While I could get excited about, even fall “in love” with certain songs, I felt no loyalty or connection to the performers.

    It’s the same with Mac vs. PC for me. I don’t feel as comfortable with the Mac interface. I can use it and accomplish what I wish to but it’s not intuitive.

    But the Mac/PC thing isn’t really about brands, is it? There is only one Mac brand, but many PC brands. I was burned early on Dell and it would take a lot to get me to buy one again. Perhaps that is a perverse sort of brand loyalty.

    Initially, I chose text/keyboard over icon/mouse. Of course I have been overruled and forced to choose icons with a mouse.

    I am not foolish enough to say I’m not influenced by brands and advertising and persuasive sales people, but I do try not to be. And I’m often disgusted with myself when I realize I have been “fooled”.

  33. Lew Zealandon 23 Aug 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Steve, I totally thought you defused any discussion about loyalties in the topics you brought up (politics, computer brands) by directly addressing the issue but you were right. Even the skeptics had to give in to temptation and add their brand loyalty in the comments.

    Actually it’s a pretty nice observational study. What was the control group?

  34. Frankiemouseon 26 Aug 2011 at 4:20 pm

    I attempt to be realistic about politicians and their views and not get protective of any of them. When I find myself in a discussion with some work mates who have very strong feeling one way I feel I am at a disadvantage. I will admit that the person whom I voted, or am thinking of voting for is not perfect and has flaws. They will claim they believe that, but will defend their choice come hell or high water.

    I also have a guy who denies global climate change is anthropogenic & is just part of the normal swings. When I say I feel humans probably do have at least some “blame” but… he dismisses me totally and doesn’t listen to anything else I have to say.

    Very frustrating.

  35. newpottyon 01 Sep 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I want all Macs and PCs. I like Linux, Windows, and OS/X. I love Canons and Nikons. I also feel disdain for Xbox, Wii, and PS3. I have no time for Star Trek or Star Wars. I must be an anomaly.

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