Anyone who has followed consumer electronics and online services knows that once a product reaches dominance, it becomes very hard for it to be dethroned (hello, iPod, Google, and Windows). Economists have argued for years regarding the costs involved in finding and adopting alternatives, but the psychologists will point out that familiarity and comfort play major roles in keeping consumers loyal to an incumbent. Research that appears in the Journal of Consumer Research delves into how these factors, collectively termed "Cognitive Lock-in," develop and play out.

The authors of the study point out that previous research has shown that cognitive lock-in is not just an abstract concern, but one comes with real-world costs: "the costs associated with thinking about and using a particular product decrease as a function of the amount of experience a consumer has with it. Thus, repeated consumption or use of an incumbent product results in a (cognitive) switching cost that increases the probability that a consumer will continue to choose the incumbent over competing alternatives." This suggests that, even if a product isn't especially easy to use, familiarity with it may overcome that drawback as, ultimately, its users don't have to think about their actions in order to get things done anymore.

The authors note that this is borne out by real-world data, as Internet usage statistics show that visit times at commercial web sites decline over time. That decline, in turn, leads to positive results: those which show the biggest decreases in visit times rack up the most sales. The paper contends, however, that these sorts of effects are actually separate from any affection or trust, or even objective measures of product superiority. The authors suggest that a user's ability to detect a product's actual ease-of-use is quite limited, and familiarity is ultimately in control of cognitive lock-in.

Get the full story at ars technica