Make Up Your Mind

Buyer behavior and consumer happiness.

The IKEA Effect: Why We Cherish Things We Build

I will always love my wobbly coffee table.

It seems like everyone, at some point, has struggled through the herculean task of assembling pre-built furniture from places like IKEA, Target or Overstock.com. It’s never as easy as it seems in the store, the instructions are often impenetrable pictograms, and the results are rarely as sturdy as your expectations. The coffee table I bought after college has developed an incurable wobble, and the doors on a freestanding cabinet from just a few years ago are just ever so slightly askew, and never quite close right, no matter how many tiny adjustments I make. Why then am I so attached to my own personal island of misfit toys? I know I’m not alone in this feeling — plenty of people seem quite attached to their self-built furniture, holding onto their college fixtures far beyond their college years. Sure, self-assembled pieces are usually considerably cheaper than their more professional brethren, but is that the only reason IKEA gets so much repeat business?

New research by Mike Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely in the Journal of Consumer Psychology might offer an additional bit of explanation. The act of building something, putting your own blood and sweat (and if we’re being honest, plenty of frustrated swearing) into a physical object, seems to imbue it with additional value above and beyond its inherent quality, which the researchers dub the “IKEA effect.” For instance, in one study, participants who built a simple IKEA storage box themselves were willing to pay much more for the box than a group of participants who merely inspected a fully built box. Participants in another study who constructed their own origami frogs and cranes valued them roughly five times as much as another group of participants thought they were worth. The increased value is not just about effort, but about completion, as built-then-disassembled and incomplete projects received no such benefit.

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It’s worth noting that participants in these studies were not allowed to personalize their projects; they were working on totally generic projects that offered virtually no room for customization. While it might not be a surprise that people who go out and find materials to put together a one-of-a-kind table or bookshelf would relish something made just to their liking, the act of putting it all together oneself provides no small part of the resulting satisfaction.

One issue left unexplored is what happens when the project can’t quite be considered a success. Doing a job well gives a certain sense of satisfaction that we attach to the object, but if that chair from IKEA must be built and rebuilt three times until it actually stands up, do we feel an even greater sense of shame and loathing for the resulting fiasco? If so, putting something together yourself without the proper skill or plans could easily backfire.

There is another potential downside, of course. If I ever do get another coffee table, I’ll never be able to sell my old wobbly one for what I think it’s worth, because no one else will see the value that came from the hour I spent squinting at the instructions and tightening bolts. And that custom desk you built just to your liking? Chances are it’s not to anyone else’s. The disconnect between the value you place on something you built and how others will value it can be stark, as seen in the origami study described above.

Still, all things considered, if you’re having a hard time deciding between buying something pre-built or putting it together yourself, the extra work that might not seem worth it now might very well put a smile on your face when it’s all done. Saving yourself the labor could just cost you some happiness.

Travis J. Carter, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. He studies decision-making, motivation, and cognition.

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