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Why You Love That Ikea Table, Even If It's Crooked

Feb 6, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 10:51 am

Have you ever spent a couple of hours working on a craft project — or a presentation for work — and then fallen in love with what you've accomplished? Do the colors you've picked for your PowerPoint background pop so beautifully that you just have to sit back and admire your own genius?

If so, get in line: You're the latest person to fall victim to the Ikea Effect.

The name for this psychological phenomenon derives from the love millions of Americans display toward their self-assembled furniture (or, dare we say it, their badly self-assembled furniture) from the do-it-yourself store with the Scandinavian name.

"Imagine that, you know, you built a table," said Daniel Mochon, a Tulane University marketing professor, who has studied the phenomenon. "Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you're the one who created it. It's the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect."

Most of us intuitively believe that the things we labor at are the things we love. Mochon and his colleagues, Michael Norton at the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely at Duke University, have turned that concept on its head. What if, they asked, it isn't love that leads to labor, but labor that leads to love?

In a series of experiments, they have demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they built than if the very same product was built by someone else. And in new experiments published recently, they've discovered why it happens: Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.

There is an insidious element here: People made to feel incompetent may be more vulnerable to the Ikea Effect. On the other hand, Mochon has found, when people are given a self-esteem boost, they appear to be less interested in demonstrating to themselves and to others that they are competent.

I asked Mochon whether this meant that stores such as Ikea could boost sales by asking people to solve very difficult math problems when they walked into the store. Might defeated consumers be willing to buy more do-it-yourself furniture, to demonstrate to themselves and their families that they really aren't incompetent?

Listen to part of my interview with Mochon:

"It would definitely be a risky strategy," Mochon replied. "If consumers ever found out that Ikea was making them feel dumb just to sell more tables, I'm not sure what the backlash would be against Ikea."

(I offered to help Mochon run the experiment: Give people who come to Ikea easy and hard math problems, and then measure whether the people given hard problems come out from the store an hour later with more purchases than the people given easy problems. Stay tuned.)

Seriously, though, Mochon's experiments actually have serious big-picture implications. The world over, companies and managers fall in love with their own ideas — and reject better ideas from the outside because they were not designed in-house.

"If I am sticking to a project and I have been working on it for a year or two, I might think this project really is a good idea," Mochon said. "So while someone external might look at my project and say, 'You know, that's a failed project, I'm not sure you should be spending time on it,' because it is the fruit of my own labor, because of the Ikea Effect, I might think that it is much better than it really is."

It's a good reason — and this is true whether you are running a big complicated project involving millions of dollars or finishing a third-grade craft project — to have someone from the outside, who isn't invested in you or your work, give you some objective feedback before you show your project to the world.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, let's talk about the furniture company that gets you to do some of the work yourself. IKEA sells you a piece of furniture in a box. You have to assemble it, well or badly, and millions of people take them up on the deal. Psychologists have been interested in this. In fact, they've come up with a term, the IKEA Effect.

To tell us what this is, we've brought in NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He brings us fascinating social science research including this little bit of it.

Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, remind us. What is the IKEA Effect?

VEDANTAM: You know, the genesis of the story is actually personal, Steve. I have a friend who has a couple of dogs and they're too big for his apartment. He got them recently. They get sick all the time. They bark like mad. They get him in fights with his neighbors. He's attending to them all hours of the night.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: He puts in a ton of work. As I watched my friend, I found myself asking a question: does he do all this work for the dogs because he loves the dogs, or does he love the dogs because he does all this work for the dogs?

INSKEEP: Ooh. OK. That's a fair philosophical question.

VEDANTAM: I mean so most of the time we think that when we love something it leads to labor. But is it possible that labor is what leads to love? And that's when I saw this new paper. It describes this phenomenon called the Ikea Effect.

I spoke with Daniel Mochon. He's a marketing professor at Tulane University, and here's how he explained it to me.

DANIEL MOCHON: Imagine that you built a table. Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? Probably a shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you're the one who created it. It's the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect.

VEDANTAM: So Mochon and his colleagues, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, what they've done is they've empirically documented something that many of us are familiar with; when you work hard at something you tend to fall in love with it, and so it's labor that ends up leading to love.

INSKEEP: It's the dignity of work in a way. You know you've done it. It gives you a sense of purpose, a sense of value and so you value it more even if you did a lousy job in the end.

VEDANTAM: In fact, that's exactly what they're finding. They're finding that the reason the Ikea Effect happens is it gives people a sense of competence, but also tells other people that they're competent.

INSKEEP: I'm curious. Will people actually pay a little more for a piece of Ikea furniture then because they have to build it, and in fact, Ikea is doing less?

VEDANTAM: Well, I'm not sure people will pay more for the furniture that's in the box. But here's what's interesting and here's what the researchers found. Once people finish building their table or their bookshelf - and they may have built it very badly and done a terrible job - they think that table is now much more valuable than a table that was assembled by a professional.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: In other words, once you build it, you fall in love with it and you think it's worth the world.

INSKEEP: OK. So we delude ourselves. We - well, maybe not delude, but we labor at something, we fall in love with it and then we're blinded by love.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And, you know, at one level this is entirely endearing, but Mochon and his colleagues think this actually has big implications. For one thing this is insidious because it turns out when people are made to feel incompetent they're more vulnerable to the Ikea Effect. You're more likely to say yes, I'm going to build that table because I feel I'm really not very good at anything else in my life.

INSKEEP: I might as well do this. OK. Fine. Fine.

VEDANTAM: But there's a bigger application, which is all over the world, people and companies and managers, they fall in love with their own ideas. They reject ideas that come in from the outside, even when those other ideas are better. In other words, they lose the ability to evaluate their own ideas objectively.

Here's how Mochon puts it.

MOCHON: If I'm sticking to a project and I have been working on it for say, a year or two, because of the Ikea Effect, I might think that this project really is a good idea. So while someone external might look at my project and say, you know, that's a failed project, I'm not sure you should be spending time on it, because it is the fruit of my own labor, I might think that it is much better than it really is.

INSKEEP: Oh gosh. I'm reminded here of the fact they we're all salesmen to one extent or another. And one of the things that perhaps is happening here is you end up selling yourself on your own idea because you've become more and more invested in it and committed to it.

VEDANTAM: And this happens all the time. We have companies that spend three years making this competitor to a tablet, and then it comes to the market and consumers say, why in the world would we possibly want to buy this product?

INSKEEP: So how are you at building Ikea furniture?

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: You know, I've discovered in my own research, Steve, that there are limits to the Ikea Effect.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: You know, when you're really, really bad at building stuff yourself it becomes obvious even to you. So typically, when I'm done building a table or a bed, you know, there's usually screws and nuts left over, so very often my wife has to come in and fix my mistakes and I, you know, I just sit on the side and think about interesting psychological theories.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can find him on Twitter at Hidden Brain. You can find me @NPRinskeep and this program @MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Built from the ground up. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.