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Unfolding the IKEA Effect: Why We Love the Things We Build

2011 September 22

ResearchBlogging.orgThe 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[1] 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:
  1. 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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46 Responses leave one →
  1. A Lion permalink
    September 23, 2011

    Yes, I value objects that I make or assemble more than comparable objects that come pre-made. But, I value objects that were made or assembled as gifts for me by friends even more highly than objects I made or assembled.

  2. September 23, 2011

    You may say that intuitively about yourself, but the data from this study seem to suggest that, on average, people do just the opposite. Although the “gift” element presents an interesting potential moderator – does the intent of the object’s creation make a difference?

  3. Akhil permalink
    September 23, 2011

    This is why home made meals are satisfying. I would even call it spiritually superior to going out and eating.

  4. September 23, 2011

    That is a very interesting idea, Akhil! But if true, I suspect that is why the cook is typically more satisfied with the meal than those s/he is cooking for!

  5. September 23, 2011

    This is kind of old news, just applied to IKEA. Cults, religions and other organizations have long known that some “investment” by the new member is key to them valuing that membership, thus initiation rites and qualifications that must be met – which are rewarded with membership AND the feeling of accomplishment AND thus a feeling of ownership. Its usually called “skin in the game” and is why, in a fire, we’d sooner save our own fingerpainting than the Picasso next to it.

  6. September 23, 2011

    You’re talking about very different phenomena though. Cult influence is a very complex concept and involves many different predominantly social factors driving people to particular courses of action. Initiation/accomplishment as you term it motivates because you suffer; cognitive dissonance suggests that we will eventually feel, “Because I suffered, this result (being in this group) must be worthwhile.”

    This study demonstrates that this sense of personal accomplishment is powerful on its own, without any social influence. I mean, these people were building IKEA boxes and Legos, which are not of high personal meaningfulness. And yet they found greater value in objects they had completed versus ones others had completed and even more surprisingly versus ones they had themselves completed and then deconstructed. The recognition of their creation as a “complete object” is critical to its perceived value – and that is definitely something we didn’t know before.

  7. Jymic permalink
    September 23, 2011

    Interesting observation but I feel there is also another component affecting the IKEA effect. Just not sure what it is. If one were to enter a store to purchase either an outdoor grill or a bicycle I would venture that most people would pay some amount to have the item put together for them. Why IKEA furniture differs in this approach is interesting! Maybe a perceived complexity?

  8. Peter permalink
    September 23, 2011

    I am in the process of rebuilding an old pickup truck and I can absolutely identify with this. So many folks ask me why I would bother with something, which to them is old, beatup and just not worth it, and just go out and by a new vehicle. I always try to explain that I know this vehicle better than they know there’s, and I love the feeling of progressing in my project. Plus, what fun is there in just buying something. There is no work in that. It is a pretty unrivaled feeling driving it down the road, especially after a lengthy repair project.

  9. September 23, 2011

    OK, I think I have found the answer to this question recently in Marshall McLuhan’s writing. A lot of people have been wondering about this question lately, as DIY explodes in popularlity on the Net. McLuhan describes handwriting as the externalization of human memory. In his model, computers are the externalization of human cognition. Finally, networks are the externalization of *consciousness*. The world he predicted is close to ours today. It has a lot of *fragmenting* of consciousness. You write a comment like this and your thought disappears off to a server and other people, and you return to the idea later on. Our conscious is highly fragmented, just like a hard drive.

    However! When you build something yourself, you are investing it with your own *solidified* consciousness. I maintain that there is survival value in a cohesive consciousness. When you build something, you sustain your conscious thought process the whole time, and when you keep that item, you maintain that consciousness with you. This also indicates why handmade gifts, as described above, are so valuable: you are sharing your consciousness with another person. All of their thoughts can be shared with you, and it becomes a kind of *adhesive* consciousness which binds two or more people together.

    Now you ask: what about all the stuff that comes off assembly lines, like my mouse and keyboard? Well, the answer to that can come from the same model. Mass-produced items have no consciousness with them, no state of mind, personal memories, or legible communication is inscribed in the object. Its assembler in the factory makes the object but does not vest it with any conscious value that you can understand without special interpretation- it’s disconnected and *fragmented* away from its maker. BTW, Marx’s theory of alienation corroborates this idea. He wrote, many years ago, that mass-produced goods create *alienation* between their maker and their consumer. It’s that simple. He went into great depth explaining how machines accelerate this alienation or disconnection and talked about many other consequences and took it in the direction of capital. Yet, this consciousness theory of McLuhan’s is a small, easy-to-understand-now-that-I’ve-explained-it part of Marx’s more complex theory.

    Some people don’t mind being alienated from the makers of the products everyday. In fact, probably most. But many people do place special value things that give them memories and keep their consciousness intact. Now, go out and make something! :)

  10. September 23, 2011

    “If I assigned a student to edit Wikipedia for the better, am I unknowingly increasing that student’s faith and value placed in Wikipedia?”

    I would guess that you’re increasing the student’s faith in THAT wikipedia article. He/she did not contribute to 99.9% of the other articles on wikipedia.

  11. September 24, 2011

    What I like about IKEA is that I can choose my items and how to personalize them without any salesman involved. Maybe a sense of freedom?

  12. BoringCommenter permalink
    September 24, 2011

    I think it’s pretty simple, and not foolish or mistaken at all. It’s pretty well explained here.

    http://www.ifixit.com/Manifesto

  13. September 26, 2011

    First time learning about the actual term (IKEA effect) attached to this behavior :)

    I think this will apply just as equally to intangible products/activities like customizing your online profile / identity .. like how facebook is promoting its new “Timeline” feature; this will be the hook.

    And brings to mind this article I just read too!
    http://thenextweb.com/insider/2011/09/10/the-future-of-evernote-from-memory-machine-to-time-machine/

    “.. the new primary driver is love, and what determines the value of your company is how much people love it. As you store more and more of your personal notes, memories and work in Evernote, essentially giving it immense personal value, how can you not grow to love it? Now, that’s a perfect business model.”

  14. September 26, 2011

    Most of us don’t think in terms of how people value the labor of others. For myself, I have come to detest “do-it-yourself’” kits, although I still “do-it-myself” a lot. Very enlightening.

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