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Water Cooler: The IKEA effect, personalization and effort justification

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 23, 2020

The love you feel for the do-it-yourself project you spent hours toiling on is likely to be deeper than for the comparable product you could have purchased at the store.

Sure, it might be a bit uneven, wonky or imperfect, but that doesn’t matter because it’s yours. Why do we feel so satisfied by our handiwork and labors of love, even when they are far from masterpieces?

This phenomenon has been popularly deemed as the “IKEA effect.” Yes, named after that beloved Swedish company that offers affordable goods, brought to life in your home with a bit of assembly. You may be pleased with your purchase, but you will likely feel especially satisfied with it because the finished product has transformed into an Allen wrench creation of your own.

Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely, named and published three studies (sciencedirect.com) on this phenomenon in 2011, finding that “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.”

Participants were asked to assemble IKEA furniture, build Lego creations and fold origami. Once completed, they felt their products were just as good as the expert versions and priced them higher than others did.

This seems a given for a project of your own design that uses a specific, developed skill set, but it applies to just about anything that requires your labor or decisions. A study carried out by Bain & Co. found even just offering customization options for online shoe shopping could lead to a huge increase in sales. This isn’t new in product design or marketing. Build-a-Bear is a perfect example. There may be a few reasons why this happens.

One obvious and fairly universal explanation is the option to personalize or create a product creates the sensation it is an extension and representation of who you are. In a culture that values individualism and self-expression, you see this everywhere in America, from the clothes we wear to the cars we drive.

Another explanation is that having some portion of responsibility for a finished product, even if that means only putting one screw in the wall, leads to feelings of competency because that finished product is physical proof of your successful efforts.

Psychologists have found that feeling like you’ve saved money on a purchase, potentially by putting in your own time and efforts, makes you feel happy with the purchase and better about the product itself. But we didn’t need a psychological study to prove that.

One of the other primary reasons for the IKEA effect is effort justification. If you spend hours working on something only to end up disliking it, you will experience cognitive dissonance, which is a sense of discomfort between conflicting thoughts and behaviors. You want to like the end product to provide reason for your efforts, so your brain will do a lot to convince you of your appreciation for your work.

This is even evident in children as young as 5. A 2018 study on published on ScienceDirect found children ate more food when they had prepared it themselves.

Being aware of the IKEA effect can be handy to keep in mind when trying to price items for sale, especially when it comes to selling a home. Many homeowners overestimate the price of their renovations simply because they place higher value on their choices and efforts.

It can also be seen as a reason for creating more. Whether it be a painting project or a home-cooked meal, rest assured your efforts will likely be satisfying in the end, largely independent of the outcome.

So go forth knowing your biases and enjoy your creations.

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