BOSTON/NEW YORK: In an age of rapid product innovation and improvement, it appears that consumers are unconsciously more prone to damage or neglect what they currently own in order to justify an upgrade, new research has suggested.

Of note for marketers seeking to capitalise on actual product-use cycles, the study's core finding is that the availability of product upgrades actually increases what it calls cavalier behaviour towards possessions.

Based on a series of lab studies involving hundreds of participants, as well as an online study involving 1,000 people, the research was conducted by Silvia Bellezza of Columbia Business School, Francesca Gino of Harvard University, and Joshua Ackerman of University of Michigan.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors explained that they examined an international dataset of 3,000 lost Apple iPhones and found that consumers were less likely to search for them when a new model was available in the market.

This also applied when the researchers conducted a more controlled online study of several hundred mobile phone owners, who were found to be particularly careless with their phones once a new model had become available.

The same pattern of behaviour emerged among other participants when they dealt with a wide range of other consumer goods, whether shampoo, toothpaste, glasses or mugs.

Indeed, in one experiment, 100 participants were given a free mug with only half of them informed about a set of higher quality "upgrade" mugs.

All of them were then asked to stack their mugs, as in the Jenga game, and it was found that the consumers who had seen the set of higher quality mugs played less well and were more careless than the others.

Professors Bellezza and Gino explained that people engage in these apparently self-defeating practices because of a fundamental desire to justify our decisions.

"We would feel guilty about upgrading without a reason – but if our current product were damaged or depleted, we’d have a justification to upgrade without appearing wasteful," they wrote.

"So we use our phone in the rain or leave our laptop behind at airport security without being aware that our carelessness has an underlying motivation."

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff