Unfolding the IKEA Effect: Why We Love the Things We Build
The IKEA Effect refers to the tendency for people to value things they have created/built themselves more than if made by someone else – in fact, nearly as much as if an expert had created the same item. I recently came across a fascinating article by Norton, Mochon and Ariely in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (i.e. marketing) testing this. Although not scientifically tested until this paper, the effect has been well known among product designers for some time, as the authors explain:
When instant cake mixes were introduced in the 1950s as part of a broader trend to simplify the life of the American housewife by minimizing manual labor, housewives were initially resistant: the mixes made cooking too easy, making their labor and skill seem undervalued. As a result, manufacturers changed the recipe to require adding an egg; while there are likely several reasons why this change led to greater subsequent adoption, infusing the task with labor appeared to be a crucial ingredient.
This suggests that by asking consumers to do a little legwork, you can increase their belief in the value of the product they have created, even if it would have been better constructed by professionals. Perhaps the best-known application of this principle is the theory’s namesake, Swedish furniture manufacturer IKEA. IKEA furniture is sold in boxes, with sometimes a great deal of assembly required.
I can attest personally to the power of the IKEA effect. We actually purchased an entire kitchen from IKEA, which I assembled and installed myself. And it is a hundred times better than anything professionals could have made!
As intuitively appealing as this theory is, it was left untested scientifically until this paper, in which Norton and colleagues manipulated several characteristics of the IKEA effect to explore the conditions under which it is most evident. Here’s what they did:
- Experiment 1A: Participants either inspected an IKEA pre-built box or assembled it themselves. Afterward, they were asked to bid on the box they had either seen or built. If their bid was above a random number, they would pay that amount to keep the box; if it was lower, they couldn’t keep it. Participants were also asked to self-report on the value of the box. An effect was found in both cases; on average, participants bid 62% more when they built the box versus when they simply inspected it. On average, participants also self-reported liking the self-built box more than the inspected boxes.
- Experiment 1B: A similar design as Experiment 1A was used, except replacing IKEA boxes with origami cranes and frogs. There were no differences in value between the types of origami (cranes vs frogs), although participants bid 460% more for their own origami creations versus ones created by others, almost the market-driven value of cranes and frogs created by origami experts. The authors also discovered that participants thought others would value their origami creations highly, despite assigning little value to the amateur creations of others.
- Experiment 2: Participants built small Lego sets (10 to 12 pieces) in pairs and were asked to bid on their own and their partners’ sets. Participants were either given a built Lego set (prebuilt condition), asked to build a Lego set (build condition), or asked to build a Lego set and then take it apart (unbuild condition). Participants universally applied more value to their own sets versus those of their partners. Most interestingly, the unbuild condition only produced slightly higher values than the prebuilt condition, while the build condition produced much larger values. Apparently, we placed increased value on assembled objects only if they are completed. Sounds pretty Gestalt to me.
- Experiment 3: Participants were asked to built an IKEA box once again, but this time, a random half of participants were stopped halfway through construction. As expected, incomplete items were not valued as highly as completed items – especially interesting since a successful bid would mean that the participant could finish building the item later.
One of the reasons that the authors used IKEA boxes and tiny Lego kits was to account for increased perceived value in customization. For example, you are likely to value your furniture more if you did something to it to make it better for you personally. In these experiments, no customization was possible, further supporting the idea that it is the act of assembling the items itself that drives this effect.
The authors note, and it is an important caveat, to remember that all of these effects were done with simple, straightforward items. Would the IKEA effect hold in more complex situations? Is this the reason that open source software proponents are so “enthusiastic” about their products while the general market resists them – because those proponents had a hand in developing them? If I assigned a student to edit Wikipedia for the better, am I unknowingly increasing that student’s faith and value placed in Wikipedia? All interesting questions for future research!Footnotes:
- Norton, M., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2011). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.08.002 [↩]
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