We moved to a new house on Friday and over the past few weeks we’ve bought some new furniture which required assembly. I’ve found that each time I walk into a room with furniture I’ve put together I feel a sense of accomplishment and think that the new furniture is really dynamite. Interestingly, my wife, who does not assemble furniture, tends to have a more subdued and measured evaluation of the new furniture. What’s behind our different reactions?
The IKEA Effect
Ascribing greater value (or even overvaluing) to something you’ve assembled is a psychological phenomenon commonly referred to as “The IKEA Effect” — in reference to the Swedish furniture maker whose items usually require assembly by the purchaser. The original Harvard research paper describing the IKEA Effect summarized it as follows: “labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of one’s labor: even constructing a standardized bureau, an arduous, solitary task, can lead people to overvalue their (often poorly constructed) creations.”
An early example of The IKEA Effect in action was the introduction of instant cake mixes in the 1950s. The original formulation of cake mixes just required that water be added. These super easy early cake mixes bombed with American housewives. Surveys found that the lackluster sales were due to the instant mixes making the cake baking process too easy; it turned out that housewives wanted to feel some sense of accomplishment when cooking. The solution? The mix manufacturers changed the formulation to require an egg and sales of the mixes skyrocketed.
Other notable companies have taken advantage of The IKEA Effect. A prime example is Build-A-Bear (founded by St. Louisan Maxine Clark) which provides children with the fun experience of constructing their own stuffed animal. The act of choosing and constructing results in a sense of accomplishment and attachment for the child and allows Build-A-Bear to charge a premium as compared to mass-produced stuffed animals. Another example is the restaurant chain Subway. The step-by-step choosing of ingredients and participation in the construction of the sandwich leads to greater satisfaction for the consumer.
Why Does The IKEA Effect Occur?
The Harvard paper suggests a few reasons The IKEA Effect occurs:
- Labor and productivity enhance our sense of well-being and seeing the tangible results of our labor is satisfying. A good example of this is my cousin who has a biology degree but who choose the wholly different career path of being a general contractor. I asked him once why he chose construction as a career instead of biology and he said that he craved the sense of accomplishment that he felt at the end of each day when he could see that he had created something.
- We tend to value things that we do that are difficult. This is referred to as “effort justification.” The Harvard paper explains that “although people rate their jobs as among their least pleasurable activities, they also rate them as among their most rewarding.” A great example of this is having children. Research has found that having children reduces our happiness. This makes sense because raising children is HARD and interferes with other things that promote happiness like socializing and traveling. Yet, most parents say that having children is the most rewarding thing they have experienced. One explanation of this contradiction this is effort justification.
- Finally, we love it when we are successful at a task. The Harvard research found that The IKEA Effect only exists if our labor is successful. When we successfully complete a task we are imbued with a sense of accomplishment and wee feel a greater sense of competence and control.