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Does this explain Mac fanatics?

I read a fascinating article in The Boston Globe this weekend that, I think, actually explains Mac fanatics. First, a reminder: Mac fanatics aren't everyday Mac users. They're the minority fringe, the freaks, the people who respond violently to every article they perceive as anti-Apple or anti-Mac. They're bad people, libelous people, and as I've often argued, they do more to harm the Mac then help it. I suppose that's ironic. I'm sure that fact is lost on these people.

Anyway. The article in question, Grape expectations: What wine can tell us about the nature of reality, explains how expectations shape our direct experience of the world:

The findings have been surprising--did you know that generic drugs can be less effective merely because they cost less?--and it's now becoming clear just how pervasive the effects of expectation are.

The human brain, research suggests, isn't built for objectivity. The brain doesn't passively take in perceptions. Rather, brain regions involved in developing expectations can systematically alter the activity of areas involved in sensation. The cortex is "cooking the books," adjusting its own inputs depending on what it expects.

Even our most primal bodily sensations, like pain, are vulnerable to the influence of expectation. Tor Wager, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, gave college students electrical shocks while they were stuck in a brain-scanning machine. Half of the people were then supplied with a placebo, which in this case was a fake pain-relieving cream. Even though the cream had no analgesic properties - it was just a hand moisturizer - people given the pretend cream said the shocks were significantly less painful ... when the same people were informed that the cream was "ineffective," their prefrontal cortex went silent. Because people expected to experience less pain, they ended up experiencing less pain. Their predictions became self-fulfilling prophecies.

The article presents a number of examples of this phenomenon. Wine. Medicinal placebos. Generic medicine. Energy sports drinks. Colas. Automobiles. Using this information to explain computing preferences, thus, isn't a difficult leap. Here's my theory.

Mac fanatics are convinced that their beloved products are better. So they approach the Mac market differently than, say, I do. They put up with missing features on, for example, a Macbook notebook computer because they're predisposed to believing that it is superior regardless. So if there's no memory card ready, well, no problem. "If we think ... that a certain brand is better, then we will interpret our senses to preserve that belief," the article notes. "Such distortions are a fundamental feature of the brain." This also leads to more negative perceptions of non-Apple products. Consider the car analogy cited in the article: "When we drive a car with a less exalted brand name, we are more likely to notice minor mechanical problems." I point the reader to any Walter Mossberg review of non-Apple hardware or software as an obvious and high profile example.

That I'm as objective about Apple and its products as I am about Microsoft or any other company or product I cover must be frustrating to these people. When I criticize an HP Tablet PC, as I did recently in this very blog and on my podcast, I'm simply having a rare lucid moment. But when I criticize an Apple product, I'm a jerk. I just don't get it.

What's really happening is that I learned to resist the Apple reality distortion field a long time ago. It happened when I watched Steve Jobs deliver a nearly identical NeXT Web Objects speech, once to a Microsoft crowd and once to the home field. The realization that this guy was just like any performer ("Hello, Detroit!") was important. He's a salesman, and he'll warp reality to meet the product he's selling. Unlike many salesmen, of course, Jobs hits it out of the park pretty regularly. He's good at what he does, and Apple makes good products. But it's important to keep what he does in perspective.

In any event, as a reviewer, I try to understand how people will really use products. I don't review a product for me, I review it for you. And you. And you. Apple products are generally excellent, so this may seem like a sour grapes kind of thing (pardon the pun, given the article's title) unless of course you've seen the high scores I generally give to Apple products. (An inconvenient truth, indeed.) But it's really just an explanation. I think the people who love Apple a little too much are falling into the evolutionary trap described by this article. Fortunately, it offers some advice.

Scientists insist that consumers can take steps to protect themselves from their expectations. "Try to fact-check yourself," Shiv says. "Organize a blind taste test. Experiment with generic cold medicines, but don't let yourself know that they are generic. Decide how you feel about a pair of shoes before you look at the price tag." Shiv is convinced that this kind of self-experimentation can save consumers money. Instead of trusting big-name brands, or naively assuming that we always get what we pay for, consumers can learn to bargain hunt.

Rangel's wine experiment demonstrated the benefits of this approach ... When the tasting was truly blind, when the subjects were no longer biased by their expectations, the cheapest wine got the highest ratings. It wasn't fancy, but it tasted the best.

I'm flying to LA tomorrow for the Windows Server 2008 launch event and I'm bringing my two-year-old Macbook along for the ride. But it's running Windows Vista, not Leopard. Make of that what you will, but I see it as a good (not great) combination of the hardware and software I prefer. Yeah, I'd like to see a memory card reader on the thing, but I can put up with that. (The inability to upgrade this aging Macbook model beyond 2 GB of RAM is more of an issue.) But nothing is perfect. Even an Apple product.

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