Planned Obsolescence (3/4)

The Psychology of Planned Obsolescence


After articles one and two we have a pretty good understanding of what planned obsolescence is. We understand how we got here – and a little bit of who (looking at you, Bernard London, GM motors and the Phoebus Cartel) got us here – but why are we still here? Why is planned obsolescence still working when it’s so clearly unnecessary and manipulative? What, in our psychological make up, plays into the marketing schemes of big corporations?

Why do we have way more stuff than we need?

And what is a need, anyway?

In our previous article we talked about the basic needs of the human race; food, water, security and procreation. Without the latter (procreation) all of the other things are pointless and without the other things the latter is impossible.

But most of us – and it’s important to mention here that we’re talking about and dealing with the issues of a westernised consumerist culture model – have all our basic needs covered. 

‘Need’ has become such a relative term, it’s almost hard to quantify. The Oxford dictionary describes a need as “[to] require (something) because it is essential or very important rather than just desirable.”. Yet how many of the things we consider needs are things that we actually just really want?

The marketing of Planned Obsolescence exploits two of these main needs: love and belonging and esteem. 

Marketing works by trying to convince you that what they are selling will make you happier. Their product will make you feel like you belong, like you’re respected and the more expensive it is the more recognition you’ll get for it.

We are animals

We are, as much as some of us try and hide it, deny it, or ignore it; animals. Specifically, we are pack animals, and pack animals function in hierarchies. The animals at the head of the pack eat first, eat most and get reproductive benefits. They enjoy the highest level of ‘security’. We put security in quotation marks because though this is the most security a pack animal can get it is also the least secure position as it is the most highly coveted and the most highly challenged. 

Photo by Andre Mouton from Pexels

But how does us being animals mean we want more and newer things?

Because in our society, more, and more expensive things, means you are more highly regarded, you are held in higher esteem. The assumption being that if you can afford to change your phone every year and have the most fashionable shade of the newest sports car then you are doing well. Likely you have a good, well paid, job that means you have personal security and you can provide security for others; you’re at the top of the pack. All of your things, your desire for things, it all comes down to an external display of your security and thus your position in society.

One of the most powerful motivations for people is status or personal prestige. We want to feel and be perceived as important and valuable. We want people to look up to us and praise our possessions or accomplishments. 

When you pay up to fifty dollars for a watch, you are buying a timepiece […] But once you pay more than fifty bucks for a watch, you are buying jewelry. You are buying a personal decoration that tells other people in a subtle way that you are successful.

Tracy, 2004

So you see, planned obsolescence may be partly our fault, but it’s not our fault. 

“Bustamante (2006) argues that consumerism has its origin in the needs created artificially by the system of production which moulds them as cultural needs”. The system of production Bustamante talks about is planned obsolescence by companies who have tapped into our evolutionary basic needs and used them to create new, artificial, modern needs – needs for a consumerist culture.

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

What next?

Now that we understand the what and the why of planned obsolescence, the only reasonable question left is… what can we do about it? What can I, as a consumer, do about this? In the next article we talk about 10 ways to combat Planned Obsolescence.


We are not trained psychology professionals. This article is written based on the research and conclusions of psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers and scholars as well as a little bit of speculation on our part.

You can find further reading and our sources in the bibliography at the end of the article.


Aladeojebi, Taiwo. (2013) Planned Obsolescence [online] at [Accessed on 08.01.20]

Bauer, M et al. (2012) Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being [online] at [accessed on 21.1.20]

Buck, S. (2017) GM invented planned obsolescence during the Great Depression, and we’ve been buying it ever since [online] at [accessed on 9.1.20]

Krajewski, M. (2014) The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy [online] at [Accessed on 22.1.20]

Keeble, D (2013) The Culture of Planned Obsolescence in Technology [online] at [Accessed on 21.1.20]

McLeod, S (2018) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [online] at [accessed on 21.1.20]

Oxford (2010) Oxford Dictionary of English [online] at [accessed on 3.2.20]

Pope, K. (2017) Understanding Planned Obsolescence: Unsustainability through Production, Consumption and Waste [online] at [Accessed on 7.1.20]
Tracy, B (2004) The Psychology of Selling: How to Sell More, Easier, and Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible [online] at,+better,+better+security&source=bl&ots=doRJ71MQjD&sig=ACfU3U1R6297BH-Om1rsDtfEFx2ocG8sZA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiyiqWamornAhUR_aQKHZXRA_AQ6AEwCnoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=the%20psychology%20of%20wanting%20more%2C%20better%2C%20better%20security&f=false [accessed on 21.1.20]

Author: Anna Kommers
Spanish translation: Anna Kommers & Estefanía Lozano