Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Even As Grown-ups, We Need Those, “Look What I Did!” Moments

We value the things we build a lot more than the things we just possess.

I don’t know about you, but as a kid I loved playing with Legos. I never distinguished myself as a budding architect, and in those days, the suite of Lego building solutions wasn’t nearly as extensive as it is today. But I wiled away many a contented hour snapping those little bits and pieces together. I think I could probably get a reasonable house-like object together. On a good day, I suppose a somewhat personish thingy was not out of the question. I don’t really remember exactly what I made. I remember the rich colors. I remember occasionally stepping on one and hurting my foot. More than anything, though, I remember, “Mom! Look what I did!”

As it turns out, we adults have our own Lego sets, and we get them at IKEA. These Legos are scaled up in size and sometimes in complexity, and they have names that sound like something for which we should be receiving medical treatment… the Malm, the Dagstorp, the Kerflunkle, etc. Personally, I’ve never gotten quite as big a kick out of building IKEA Legos as I did the original. But as it turns out, that “Look what I did!” moment has a lot to do with why we like the IKEA furniture we buy so much.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that when we assemble our own furniture, we actually value that furniture more than we would have if it had come assembled. As an example, let’s say that you and your friend Ingmar have each just bought a chest of drawers for the bedroom. Ingmar bought the Tarva at IKEA for $149, trundled it home, and spent a fair few hours with parts and pieces arrayed on the bedroom floor, patiently fitting pieces together, and then hours more applying a coat of lacquer, which IKEA declined to do. You, by contrast, spent quite a lot more to buy a solid oak chest of drawers made with care by an expert craftsman. You picked it up at the craftman’s shop and brought it home. You polished and dusted and were done in 15 minutes.

At the end of the day, you both have chests of drawers and they look similar. You are sure, however, that your solid wood, well-crafted piece of furniture will stand the test of time, while Ingmar’s pressboard pastiche will likely have a half-life of about nine months before the veneer wears thin at the edges and the assemblage begins to wobble each time a drawer is opened or closed. Yours might have cost twice as much, you snigger, but you won’t be buying another one in two years.

But here’s the thing: If you were both asked to put a price tag on your newly acquired drawers, you would find that Ingmar would insist on a price somewhere in the neighborhood of the one you paid for yours. And she would be adamant. Ingmar will actually believe that her lightweight creation is as good as the sturdy piece of furniture you chose.

The affordable, stylish (and unfinished) Tarva!

So, what’s going on here? If you have read other posts here or here, you might recall the endowment effect. The endowment effect describes the fact that merely taking possession of an object, any object, makes the item more valuable to us than it is to anyone else. If someone gives me dime, it will cost them more than 10 cents to buy it from me, even if I don’t need the extra money.

Researchers thought that perhaps the IKEA effect was really a version of the endowment effect. So, in their studies, they tested how much people valued a thing they received versus a thing they received and built. And, in fact, we value the things we build a lot more than the things we just possess. We tend to value our inexpensive self-assembled piece of furniture as though it were a very expensive, highly crafted product.

The researchers believe that what is happening has deep psychological roots. According to psychologists, people have a universal need to feel competent. Even as grown-ups, we need those, “Look what I did!” moments. When we build something, that experience helps fulfill that need. Hence, the researchers suggest that the reason people think so highly of their self-assembled Whoganfloogan from IKEA is that building it gives people a rush of competence. We are proud of our effort, and that pride becomes embodied in the item itself.

And the cool thing is, when the Tarva comes tumbling down in two years’ time, we get to do it all again.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values. To find out more about how your personality and values influence how you relate to money and spending, we encourage you to first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase and then take our Sucker Rumination Scale and the Tightwad/Spendthrift Scale. We think you may learn a lot about how you and why you spend your money the way you do.

The article referenced above is called, “The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love,” by Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely and was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, volume 22, pages 453–460.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a member of the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory and recent M.S. graduate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at San Francisco State University.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

more...

Subscribe to Can't Buy Happiness?

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.