What makes a fanboy tick? I believe fanboy behaviour is driven by cognitive dissonance in a manner strikingly similar to political partisanship, sporting rivalry and the religious cold war between militant atheists and their theistic counterparts.
I’ve written about cognitive dissonance
before, and in greater length than I will attempt here, but the potted version
for anyone new to the idea is as follows: we all adopt certain beliefs about
ourselves and the world around us, and once these beliefs are adopted they
dictate how we interpret all our experiences to a fair degree. When we come across
situations that radically contradict our beliefs, we are filled with an
uncomfortable feeling: to lessen this unpleasant experience (which is termed
cognitive dissonance) we modify our beliefs in a way that will lessen the
When cognitive dissonance occurs between
groups of people with different beliefs (which is perhaps the most common manner in which
this behaviour manifests) there are a handful of common responses: either we
distance ourselves from people who hold other beliefs by marking them out as
different (using pejorative terms such as fanatic, heretic, pseudo-scientist),
we apply social pressure to try to make them conform to our beliefs, or if we
are subject to the social pressure ourselves we may conform to the alternative
view (i.e. give in to peer pressure).
Recently, scientists reported brain
scans of political partisans which revealed the parts of the brain activated
during partisan-response (for instance, the hostility felt towards an opposing
candidate) were the same regions involved in assessing risk and reward in the
context of prior experience. According to psychologist Jonas Kaplan of the
This connects with the first mechanism of ameliorating cognitive dissonance: demonising people with opposing beliefs. Partisans not only interpret the speech and actions of their candidates more positively, they turn up the negative feelings engendered by the opposing candidates – ensuring a strong antagonism. This is why politics and religion are such explosive topics: having committed to one metaphysical and ethical position (liberal versus conservative, atheist versus theist etc.) partisans are no longer able to see either side or the argument without massive distortion. Independents and agnostics – people with no prior commitment, or a lesser degree of commitment – can generally see flaws and benefits on both sides of the divide.
Now it may seem that committing your
loyalty to Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo is a world apart from committing to a
political or religious stance – after all, the stakes of politics are the
leadership and government of society and the world, and the stakes of metaphysical belief can
seem even more serious to both atheists and theists. Why should videogame
fanboys be so invested in their loyalty to one platform over another?
Remember that the parts of the brain activated in partisan response are those involved in assessing risk and reward, and cognitive dissonance is involved in protecting one’s prior decisions against disconfirming evidence. The reward in the context of videogame players is the enjoyment they will earn from playing the games on the various console systems, often in the form of fiero (triumph over adversity) – that hot and addictive emotional reward from overcoming immense challenge – but this is far from the only form of reward to be found in play. The decision each fanboy has made at some point in the past is which console will give them the greatest emotional reward from play – and for loyalists who stick with one console manufacturer from generation to generation, this decision was made a long time ago.
Thus the fanboy experiences cognitive
dissonance in the wake of disconfirming evidence that they made the right
choice (i.e. that they choose the console that would give them the most
reward). This most commonly manifests in a partisan conflict between opposing
camps – at the moment this is most commonly Microsoft and Sony as these are the
companies fighting hardest over the loyalty of the “hardcore” gamers, but
Nintendo fanboys are subject to the same psychological forces and conflicts
(often lessoned these days, as such people often have to own another console as
well since Nintendo cannot produce their highest quality games with sufficient
regularity to keep their fans occupied).
Last week, when I wrote about the battle
between Sony and Microsoft for hardcore gamer loyalty, it triggered an
avalanche of knee jerk reactions from Sony fanboys because I assessed that
Microsoft has the edge in this struggle at the moment. This was judged as
disconfirming evidence that these people had made the right choice – thus
triggering cognitive dissonance, and producing all sorts of wild accusations
against me, including that I must be a Microsoft fanboy (I guess not a very
good one, though, since I don’t actually own an Xbox 360). This in turn
triggered the same kind of response from the Microsoft fanboys as they
embattled with their “enemies” in an effort to justify their prior commitments.
But aside from the fun that can come from friendly rivalry (something we see more commonly between sports fans than between political or religious enemies), this kind of defence of one’s decision to purchase one console or another is rather ridiculous, especially right now when the development climate favours multi-platform releases. Whichever power console you chose to purchase, it is highly likely that it will fulfil your play needs as adequately as its rival. Or course, it doesn’t feel this way to the fanboy, just as the political and religious adversaries cannot accept that there could be merit to aspects of the opposing position. Cognitive dissonance prevents this realisation.
So the fanboys defend their beloved
consoles fiercely, because all their prior experience tells them they made the
right choice (they have indeed enjoyed their console immensely) and anything
that suggests otherwise triggers cognitive dissonance, and thus a need to
lesson this uncomfortable feeling – usually by demonising the opposing camp, or
indeed anyone not coming from their position. Accepting the idea that people
who made the “opposite” decision (who bought a PS3 instead of a 360 or vice
versa) also made a good decision is not an allowable response as it seems to invalidate
the choice the fanboy made – we can’t both be right, is the assumption made,
but this postulate is quite in error.
We will always have fanboys, and they will always fight vigorously to defend their choice of loyalty. By studying their behaviour we learn something about ourselves, about that unseen aspect of cognitive dissonance that we are all subject to but can rarely catch a glimpse of without exceptional circumstances. Don’t judge the fanboys too harshly, as you and I are all subject to similar forces, in politics, sports, religion, science and other domains. I would much rather see such zeal expressed in the pointless debate over which was the “correct” console to purchase than attempting to disrupt our freedom of belief or the chance of political action on vital issues – if we can’t eliminate cognitive dissonance, perhaps we can at least contain it to the realm of the trivial.