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Want to ensure yourself hours of entertainment?
Step One: Log into any photography forum.
Step Two: Post these words: “Nikon is better than Canon.” Or vice versa. It honestly doesn’t matter.
Step Three: Watch the Internet go absolutely berzerk.
Posts will be going up at 3am, people will literally lose sleep trying to prove or disprove that statement. Links will appear from the bowels of the Internet. Shouting matches ensue with people using capital letters to EMPHASIZE their POINTS. It’s quite something.
But it’s not the responses that entertain – it’s their sheer predictability.
Because the old Canon vs. Nikon debate will never end. It wouldn’t end even if Really Objective Scientists performed rigorous tests and officially proved that one brand was better than the other. It wouldn’t end if every photographer in America read the results of that study and confronted the cold hard facts firsthand.
And the reason the debate will never end has nothing to do with the gear itself.
You can elicit the same maelstrom of forum uproar by asserting that Mac is better than PC, that prime lenses are better than zoom lenses, that Justin Bieber is better than the Backstreet Boys.
The blame for the longevity of Canon vs. Nikon can ultimately be laid at the feet of a handful of cognitive biases, the impish, unreliable rules by which we perceive and judge the world. We’ll talk about them a lot on this blog, as they’re the source of much maddening behavior in our businesses (both our clients’ behavior and our own). Let’s walk through how this plays out in ye olde Canon v. Nikon debate:
We hate mental contradiction.
Let’s say you’re a Canon owner, and you’re shooting happily away with your Canon 580EX II speedlites, when suddenly master Strobist David Hobby comes atcha saying that Nikon is the better system for lighting. To make matters worse, he has data to back it up – some mumbo jumbo about sync speeds. The nerve.
The reason this irritates us is that he’s setting up cognitive dissonance, the feeling of discomfort we have when we’re trying to hold two pieces of conflicting information in our minds: We own Canon, but Nikon is the best. We don’t want to be second-class gear citizens, we want to believe that what we purchased is the best. We hate this kind of discomfort. To resolve it, we frequently just discount the piece of information that is inconveniencing us.
But more often (particularly where a forum or Facebook free-for-all is involved), cognitive dissonance doesn’t just push us to ignore what someone says. It will likely lead to:
The Backfire Effect.
Instead of Mr. Hobby’s data convincing us that Nikon is the way to go, we are going to become even more convinced that Canon is the best option.
We might scour the internet for proof that Canon is awesome and Nikon is not. We’ll amass articles that state that Canon lenses are better, search our own experiences for times when our Canon gear came through and saved the day for us, and find other photographers with outstanding work who shoot Canon. Then we’ll fume about all this in the car on the way to the grocery store, and go back and check to see if someone replied to a post we made so that we can smack it down with our newfound evidence. Evidence which usually had nothing to do with our selection of Canon in the first place.
Helping the backfire effect along its merry way is the handy crutch called post purchase rationalization. When we purchase expensive things, we are motivated to convince both ourselves and our peers that our decision was the best one. And we’ll argue until the bitter end because if we don’t, we’re faced with the unbearable thought that we spent a lot of money on something that is not, actually, the best thing ever.
In short, we’ll selectively filter out information that agrees with David Hobby’s claims, and mentally highlight information that proves our point. We won’t even realize that we’re doing it, but we’ll subtly ease ourselves back into the belief that Canon really is better and he’s just spouting off about niggling details that don’t matter. In short, his efforts to convince us that Nikon is better will backfire and make us even more certain that Canon is the best choice.
And this, friends, is why people spend hours on forums, making arguments that convince no one, because everyone is too busy convincing themselves that they are right.
And Then It Gets Worse.
What if, somehow, David Hobby leapfrogged the backfire effect, smashed the barriers of rationalization, and showed us that the grapes were in fact sweet? What if he honestly convinced us that the brand we didn’t own was really and truly better – what do you think most of us would do?
We’d keep investing in the same brand we currently have.
In fact, it would be a classic case of the sunk cost effect. We fall prey to it all the time. The sunk cost effect usually plays out as follows: Say you buy a ticket to a concert. You get there, and the music stinks. But instead of leaving, you think “Well, I paid $112 for the ticket, so I might as well stay.” Because you invested in being there (the “sunk cost”), you feel like you should stick it out. And as a result, you waste two more hours of your life along with the $112 you already sunk into it, instead of just cutting your losses and heading for the parking lot.
The sunk cost effect traps us into staying in houses we don’t like, wearing clothes that don’t suit us, finishing degree programs we hate, and eating the rest of that crappy takeout. And I’ll venture to say that in the end, were there an Armageddon-style shootout between Canon and Nikon where Nikon emerged the clear winner, the sunk cost effect would still cause the losing team to preorder the Canon 5D Mark III.
But after all.
Of course photos aren’t about the gear that made them, they’re about the vision. As far as I know, Ansel Adams didn’t own a Canon OR a Nikon, and he did okay. (He did, however, have a burro named Mistletoe. This shows he was much smarter than any of us modern-day photographers who haul around our own gear like pack mules.) So ultimately, let’s quit wasting Internet mileage howling about Canon vs. Nikon and admit that we just want to be happy in the warm cocoon of our biases, and we’d like to stay that way thankyouverymuch.
Instead, just grab the nearest camera, and go make some images.
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Post script: Apologies to David Hobby for invoking him involuntarily as the Nikon advocate here. I only did so because I attended his Flash Bus Workshop and found him good-humored enough that he probably wouldn’t mind being a pro-Nikon straw man. And although I seem to pick on Canon in the post, I’m actually a happy Canon shooter, and yes I cognitive biasedly ignored all of Mr. Hobby’s anti-Canon smack talk and cheerfully purchased a new 580EX ii a few weeks after the workshop. What can I say. Mea sunk cost effect culpa.