A semi-daily chronicle of my life as a musician, a family man, and a citizen of Oregon.

Jun 5, 2011

What My Dyson Taught Me About Cognitive Bias

The purchase

Jen and I moved into our house about seven years ago.  My previous apartment had hard wood floors, so I didn’t need a vacuum cleaner and didn’t own one.  My new, wonderful, highly mortgaged home, purchased near the height of the housing bubble, however, contained what we’ll put politely “champagne” colored carpets in almost every room.  A less discriminating individual may refer to them as pink, but such a brute would never be allowed in my new, highly mortgaged, house.

I am the kind of person who will pay extra for quality, operating under the assumption that in the long run I’ll save money – instead of buying a new pair of shoes every six months I can buy a pair of Doc Marten’s or Red Wings that will last two years.  Sure, in the short term I pay more,  but by buying for quality when it makes sense to do so I consume less in the long term.

With this mindset I knew that I had only a few choices for the new vacuum, and the Dyson value proposition of a bag-less upright had me sold.  In addition to being one of the few bag-less uprights on the market at the time, the Dyson looked and worked so *different* than anything I had seen before that it was hard to compare to other vacuums.  Subsequently, Apple’s iPhone, Toyota’s Prius and BMW’s Mini Cooper have followed a similar model, introducing novel solutions to common problems, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  I honestly didn’t even consider a different brand than Dyson.  Based on nothing more than a marketing campaign and a hefty price tag I considered my purchase to be totally congruent with my strategy of buying for quality.

My concerns mounted the moment that we brought the Dyson home.  The quality of the components on the Dyson are atrocious.  Vacuums are by and large plastic crap, but as plastic crap the Dyson is low-quality stuff.  The pieces snapped together perilously without screws or any kind of reinforcing connection.  The electrical cord frayed within the first few months of use.  The swiveling mechanism for the brush assembly was constantly going askew.  The brushes themselves were barely a mechanism.  I made a mistake, but it would take me more than a year to come to that conclusion because I was still invested in the purchase.

Marketing Hype

People who market things have it all over on people who buy things.  First and foremost, they have the time and resources to spend the majority of their energy thinking about what it takes to get someone to buy something.  They don’t stop there – they subdivide the science of selling into parts – how to get someone to buy something once, how to get someone to create a relationship with a product so that they’ll buy frequently, how to trade out one product for another.  There are as many varieties of selling as there are gradations of plastic crap.

In terms of resources, marketers know a lot about psychology.  But even better, they get a huge quantity of something that academics don’t (at least not without concerted effort) – data.  And unlike an academic, who attempts to explain why things happen or what data may mean about the systematic effects at work within their area of study – marketers only need to know what works and how much it works.  They are freed from introspection or causality because their scope is so much more limited.  Who cares if plasma TVs use far more electricity than other kinds, driving up their customers’ electric bills and adding pollution to the air?  Manufacturers know how to make them for a price that sells.  All other considerations are delegated to the consumer, the retailer, or elsewhere.

Consumers can get some insight into what the marketers know, though.  My favorite site on wikipedia is the list of cognitive biases.  This site is a treasure trove of information.  Peruse it now, if you’d like.  Print it out.  Hang it on your wall.

Looking down the list, we see some biases that are at work in my Dyson situation:

Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink and herd behavior.

Choice-supportive bias – the tendency to remember one's choices as better than they actually were.

Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.

Loss aversion – "the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it".

Outcome bias – the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

Post-purchase rationalization – the tendency to persuade oneself through rational argument that a purchase was a good value

Selective perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.”

- Wikipedia

And that’s just to name a few.

For me, immediately after purchase I was convinced that I had made a good decision.  Dysons are expensive.  That means they work well.  I am a smart person.  I make good decisions. You get the picture.

But alas, the quality of the product was always low.  After a year, when the sting of the investment wore off, I began to become disillusioned. When the belt broke on the machine, and I realized what an incredible hassle it would be to fix myself, and how expensive it would be to have someone else fix it, I threw in the towel on Dyson.  Besides the belt there were numerous other problems and I just didn’t want to deal with them anymore.

A New Day

Before I replaced this vacuum, I utilized my consumerreports.org subscription to do some research.  I found that, just as I assumed, price is a poor absolute indicator of vacuum quality.  A Hoover WindTunnel, for example, was both extremely affordable and highly performing.  I evaluated it largely based on how well it cleans, the bagless feature, which was important to Jen, and it’s overall construction and quality.  I made a short list of similar candidates and headed to Sears.

The purchase experience at Sears was comical.  The sales person is obviously incented to sell particular brands by commission, and Hoovers were definitely not on that list.  She seemed to judge quality based on how often items are returned, which I’m sure coincides with a report that she pays close attention to, since it drives her commission.  She wasn’t sure about the Hoover we were looking at, because she hadn’t sold many, and she’d never had one returned.  During the course of the conversation we learned that she had only worked in the department (or possibly at Sears) for five weeks.  Viewing her as a source of information with only misinformation to supply, I moved forward with my plan.

After getting the vacuum home and getting it put together I can attest that in terms of quality of construction it’s far superior to the Dyson.  It also performs its primary function very well – it gets the carpets (and the hardwoods for that matter) very clean.  It has kind of a cool feature where the cord unwinds from its base, and retracts when a pedal is depressed. In terms of price, it sells for about a third of what I paid for the Dyson seven years ago.  My only complaint a month after is that the cord is too short.  It needs to be moved around outlets a lot, which is a pain.

Lingering Doubts

But, my friends, our brains are very powerful and our biases are strong.  Despite my experience, I still have lingering doubts.  For one, the fact that the Hoover was literally cheap makes it hard for me not to see as figuratively cheap.  It’s also cheap plastic crap – almost all vacuums are – and although I know that the construction of this particular cheap plastic crap is better than the Dyson’s I can’t help but have doubts.

I was at a friend’s house and noticed that he had the same Hoover vacuum I had just bought.  My friend, however, is exactly the kind of person who would never put the amount of effort into his purchase decision that I did into mine, let alone spend an hour writing a blog post about it.  He basically lucked into the same decision I made, assuming that you agree that I made a good decision.  The lack of value in scarcity in this instance drives down my sense of value in the Hoover.

So I am stuck with my cognitive biases, as I suspect we all are.  The difficulty with such a rich system of biases is that knowing you have them, there’s very little you can do to change them.  You can address them one at a time, but accommodating for all of them is very difficult.  Awareness is helpful to some degree, but at the end of the day we are made how we are made.