November 16, 2012

The Apple of my Eye

Why do people love Apple products so much? Sure, many of us also love our best pair of jeans, our favourite book, or our sharpest chef's knife, but I think it's fair to say that we have beyond-reasonable affection for our MacBooks, iPhones, iPods, and iPads--and that we don't feel the same way about our coffeemakers, alarm clocks, or the PCs we have to use at work.

What's this outsized love about?

Among others, two features of Apple products elicit affection:

1) Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics or motivations to animals (e.g., My cat knows when I'm sad and comes to purr on my lap), to non-living objects such as cell phones (e.g., My phone thinks I want to say 'spring' when I'm trying to say 'sprint'), or to phenomena like the weather (e.g., This snowstorm is trying to make me miss my bus). Apple products are deliberately anthropomorphic: they have ultra-responsive touch screens, which makes us feel like we're communicating with them; they're silver or white with a sleep light that throbs like a gentle heartbeat (e.g., MacBook), rather than black and machine-like with flashing red or green lights.

2) Not only do they breathe and respond to touch, but many Apple products are tiny, captializing on the cute response. The cute response is an evolutionary concept that refers to a variety of features (small, smooth, rounded) that, across species, make something look cute. Now think of Apple products: like babies and unlike boxy old computers, Apple products, including most of their icons and features, are characterized by a general absence of sharp corners and right angles. Add miniatureness, and we're in love. I mean, who hasn't cooed over an iPod nano or iPad mini?

Why do we anthropomorphize? Anthropomorphism is hypothesized to help humans make sense of our environments and feel greater control. That is, assigning human motivations to our cats, dogs, laptops, and iPods makes it easier for us to understand and interact with them. Further, anthropomorphism has been demonstrated to be more common in people who are socially isolated, where it fills a need for connection. Think of Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball in Castaway.

Why do we like things that are tiny and cute? Evolution science suggests that mammals are hardwired to respond quickly and lovingly to anything with big eyes, a high forehead, a small nose, and an undersize chin. These cute features signal extreme youth, harmlessness, and vulnerability; they trigger our caring instincts, which is key for evolution since the infants of most mammal species are pathetically helpless and would quickly die without parental intervention.

Apple products capitalize on anthropomorphism and the cute response, at least partially explaining our boundless affection for inanimate gadgets. These features are no coincidence, but rather a careful design and marketing strategy.

NB: The flip side is that when we anthropomorphize, we make non-human entities responsible for their actions, explaining why we feel confused--if not humiliated and betrayed--when our gadgets don't work (e.g., "I charge it every day! I always keep it in its little case! I didn't do anything, but it's suddenly dead! How could my phone do this to me??").

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