Why we irrationally crave new and useless gadgets

We’re novelty-seeking organisms, and marketers are experts at stoking that curiosity

Gold Apple Watch Edition


I felt a strange sensation the other day when I tried on the Apple Watch. A presence I’ve not felt since…

No, it wasn’t Obi Wan Kenobi. It was child-like desire. The kind of want that makes little sense. The kind where it’s clear the lizard part of the brain is in control.

I’ve written a lot about how the Apple Watch, and all smartwatches for that matter, are unnecessary because they don’t do much that other devices don’t already cover. And yet, here I was desiring the shiny bauble on my wrist.

I’d thought that as a relatively mature and responsible adult, that I was over this sort of thing, but I guess not.

If you’re interested in the Apple Watch, you’ve probably read the reviews, many of them long enough to be novellas. You know what it’s all about: it sends notifications from your phone to your wrist, it tracks your steps, it even lets you send your heartbeat to a loved one. Why you’d ever want to do that is an open question.

It’s not for any reason—and I use that word in its most literal sense—that I found myself wanting it. It was only later, after my brain’s logic centre kicked back in, that I realized I had simply fallen prey to the reflex we all sometimes exhibit when presented with something shiny and new.

Scientists call it the orienting response, which is where an organism reacts to a change in its environment that isn’t quite great enough to startle. The normal reaction in such a situation is curiosity, of wanting to know more. The key is want: it’s where the organism’s innate need for safety and stability gives way to a desire to discover something new.

I think that about sums it up.

Once my faculties had returned, I actually thought about the experience. I’d tried on a few models and straps and found the entry level “Sport” models, with their plastic straps, to indeed be plasticky in look and feel.

The one Apple Watch I did like was higher end, with a stainless steel link strap. If I had to buy one, that would be it because it felt solid and classy. The only problem: it’s $1,229.

That’s enough to snap any lizard brain out of its reverie. I only had to think of what else I could do with that money, as well as the fact that I don’t normally wear a watch, and if I really wanted to spend that much I would already have a pretty good one. Ultimately, all of these strong rationalizations won out over the instinct to want.

I suspect other people may have similar experiences, where initial desire is eventually conquered by rationality, and this might actually work against Apple. So far, the company is selling the watch online exclusively. You can go into a store for a try-on session, like I did, and then pre-order it from the website. Then, you have to wait until it arrives.

Apple may have put this system in place to cope with early demand, but if my experience is any indication, the company would do well to shift to in-store availability as soon as possible. Apple might be letting a lot of impulse buyers slip away by giving them time to actually think things through.