Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Problem of Emotional Investment

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Have you ever loved something so much, you couldn't let it go? Perhaps a favorite toy, or a favorite scarf, or even a car. Whatever it was, you held onto it a lot longer than most of your other stuff. Perhaps it's old and needs to be thrown out. Perhaps it doesn't do anything for you any more. Perhaps your significant other wants desperately for you to give it away. You know you should get rid of it, but you can't bring yourself to do it.

Why should we have this problem? Why do we hold on to junk we don't need?

It's called emotional investment, and it affects a lot more than our closet space.

When you get attached to something, it's because you've made an emotional attachment to it. Perhaps someone you love gave you a bean bag chair, which turned out to be a pretty good gift, and now, years later, it's covered with duct tape to keep it in one piece. Normally it would be long gone and forgotten, but you don't throw it out because of who gave it to you. You love that person, and so you love what they gave you.

Another attachment, besides gifts given by someone special, are things you got under special circumstances. Perhaps it was your first and only trip to Hawaii and you took a rock back home with you, which now has a place of pride on the coffee table, but you have no other rocks in your house. Or perhaps Rock Hudson kissed your hand and you haven't washed it since.

And yet another kind of attachment can come from a salesperson, or an advertisement, or feeling like you belong to an elite group. For instance, a large portion of Macintosh owners feel like their computer is inherently superior to all others, even though they cost a lot more and don't run as much software. Still, somehow they've been sold on an idea that their computer company of choice is so much better than what the rest of us use that we're all losers. They feel so strongly that they start fights about it. And then the Windows lovers will exhibit the same zealotry, and neither will be willing to admit that they're coming to blows over a piece of plastic that can't even wash the dishes for them.

Happy ChristmasIt works for more than junk, too. We form emotional attachments to people and ideas all the time. The idea that we're never wrong... or always wrong, as the case may be. The idea that no one knows what we're going through. The idea that Libertarians are inherently not as valuable to our political system as Republicans and Democrats. Or the belief that all political groups are equally worthless and should be disbanded. Somehow, we form an emotional attachment to someone, something, or some idea, and we'll defend it against all rational argument.

For instance, anyone can see that the Earth is flat. Just look around! There's no way we could possibly be living on a ball. It even says in the Bible that the Earth has four corners, so therefore we must be living on a square. But somehow, it's possible to sail around the world. I haven't done it myself, so I don't know if it's true, and I think that weird thing at the top of the Sears Tower which they call the "curvature of the Earth" is just an optical illusion. And the circular shadow cast upon the moon during a lunar eclipse means nothing. The Earth is a flat square resting on the back of a turtle, who is sitting on another turtle. In fact, it's turtles all the way down.

You Know You're a Republican/Democrat If...It should be apparent that getting someone to form an emotional attachment to something would be a great way to sell them something. Guess what? It IS! Salesmen and marketers have been doing this since before we decided to start writing this stuff down. I think we started writing stuff down just so we could send ads to each other. But the point is, that thing you just GOTTA BUY, you've formed an emotional attachment to it. They made you believe that you would be cool if you bought their product, or that you HAD TO HAVE IT.

All of us have formed emotional attachments to our family, right? Mom, Dad, Brother, Sister, etc. We love them, without question. Maybe they did something really cool for us when we were little, maybe they still do cool things for us now that we're bigger. Usually, our acceptance of them allows us to irrationally forgive them almost anything, but sometimes they do something that really hurts. It feels like a betrayal. Extreme emotional attachment can lead to extreme emotional outrage upon betrayal, or even just the belief of betrayal.

Now That's What I Call Christmas 4When it's a THING we love, often we transfer our emotional attachment to the company which made it, and if they treat us right, we rave about them, and if they treat us wrong, we may rationalize it away, or we may instead feel betrayed. For instance, all the people who thought Apple Computer could do no wrong felt incredibly betrayed when Apple announced they were going to start putting Intel chips into their beloved computers. Many Mac fanatics promised death to Steve Jobs over a decision which no doubt agonized him. Likewise, when Sid Meier's Civilization V was announced, everyone thought it would be the best edition ever, but when it was finally released, many felt betrayed and felt it was a step backwards. And when Marvel Comics broke up Spidermanand Mary Jane, the outrage was unfathomably intense. The fans are STILL up in arms about it.

When a company tells us they're our friend, that they're the best thing ever, or whatever else they can to get us to buy from them or to buy their product, be it a toaster, a Ferrari, or even a celebrity like Steve Jobs or Jessica Simpson, doing so implies a certain level of co-responsibility. They have made implicit promises that they will love us, and if they betray that promise, people get upset. On the surface it seems irrational; it's just a THING, or a person you've never met. How can you fall in love with - or hate - a person you've never met and who has no idea they've wronged you?

It seems ridiculous, until you remember that you were asked to make an emotional investment. Emotional investments carry certain responsibilities, on both sides of the line.

There are plenty of companies, products, celebrities (who are simply products being sold to us), and so on who have sworn they were our best friend, only to end up disappointing us. It happens. It's inevitable. They're going to let us down one day. The problem is that, when it comes to REAL family and friends, we can talk to them, work it out, get an "I'm sorry" out of them, and we'll feel better. You can't get that out of many companies, and good luck getting it out of a celebrity. However, the ones you CAN get it out of - often in the form of a discount on your next purchase - these companies build up VERY loyal customer bases.

For instance, when I buy computer components, I shop almost exclusively at Newegg, and have done so for nearly 10 years. I recommend them to everyone. I've given them a lot of constructive criticism on their website, and now, thanks to me, it's an even better experience now. Why? Because they treated me right to begin with, and if something went wrong, they made it right. They had something called customer service and they realized it was important. In a way, they offered me a piece of ownership in their company, and in a way, I see myself as a part of their family. Now they're just about the biggest computer component seller out there, with perhaps a million happy customers. (Disclosure: I get no kickbacks for touting Newegg.)

Most companies can handle customer service easily, but the story is a little different when it comes to celebrities. For instance, I'm currently small enough that I can answer all my fanmail and make friends out of my fans (and vice versa). In a couple years, I might not be able to. At that point, some celebrities decide they no longer have any responsibility to their fans, and mention us only so we'll stick around; they don't actually care about us or want us to have a satisfactory customer experience. But there are also a few who DO make the effort to keep up. And I plan to be one of them, because I know what it's like to be on the outside looking in. I plan to bring as many of you with me as will follow because I'm thankful for what you've done for me.

So what are you supposed to take home from all this, you ask?

People have been using emotional attachment as a sales technique for eons. We do it all the time to each other without even realizing it. Usually it results in making a new friend. The most effective sales people use it, often as a weapon, and often without understanding their half of the social contract. It's hard NOT to take it personally when your emotions are toyed with.

Next time you discover a product you really want, or a person whose accompaniment you think you really need, stop and think: is that person really going to deliver on their implied promises to be your friend? If they do something that hurts your feelings, but you still like THEM, will they consider your constructive criticism like a real friend would, or will they ignore you because they didn't really care about anything more than your money?

Thank you for your consideration. The groups I lead or am a part have lately been asking my opinion about why they should feel ripped off or taken advantage of by people, or why it appears that customer service is going away. Just remember that most salespeople/celebrities/hotties are unaware of what kind of weapon they're wielding against you, so don't take it personally. Just point them to this article and they'll understand why you took offense.

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More articles to tickle your braincells:
You are What you Consume
Writing is Easy
How to Talk Like a Trucker

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