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The IKEA Effect: Is Self-Made Really Better?

Decision makers overvalue self-made objects and it has curious consequences.

Key points

  • The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias, which leads people to overvalue their self-made items.
  • Examples of the IKEA effect include overestimating the value of manually assembled furniture or hand-knitted items.
  • Reasons for the IKEA effect aren’t fully understood, but are likely to include a human need to feel and appear competent.

As the holiday season is upon us, I am busy as ever creating Christmas cards and producing handmade gifts. I am an enthusiastic hobby crafter and value creativity and effort in all the presents I make or receive. If you are a friend with a love for shop-bought, mass-produced perfection, you better brace yourself for a series of picture frames, aprons, and pottery adorned with my daughter’s footprints and doodles. The mugs may be leaking, and the paints may bleed, but don’t you dare show anything other than admiration and delight!

Jueun Song/Unsplash
Is the IKEA effect clouding your judgement?
Source: Jueun Song/Unsplash

What Is the IKEA Effect?

The excitement I experience for my handmade items is an example of a curious cognitive bias, often referred to as the IKEA effect. This bias describes people’s tendency to overestimate the value of items, which resulted from personal effort or labour. Here are a few examples of how the IKEA effect may be clouding your judgment:

  • You prefer IKEA flat pack furniture—assembled by hand—to a far more valuable, shop-bought period piece.
  • You value a personally created soft toy from the Build-A-Bear franchise more than a luxury plush teddy made from the finest natural fibres.
  • When trying to sell your hand-knitted jumpers online, the price you request is too high, meaning you don’t make any sales.
  • You prefer your own paint-by-number, hand-painted canvas to a genuine piece of art that was bought at a gallery.
  • You refuse to disassemble your own LEGO creations, even though your partner says they take up too much space.
  • You believe that your sorry attempt at a birthday cake (created from a cake-mix) beats a beautifully decorated, shop-bought gateau.

Evidence for the IKEA effect

The IKEA effect is surprisingly powerful. A series of experiments investigated the effect by asking participants to either assemble or merely inspect different items such as IKEA storage boxes, Origami paper art, or LEGO sets. Afterward, participants had to indicate how much money they would pay to receive the item in question.

Across all experiments, people, who had invested a personal effort into building the item, offered more money than those who had only inspected the item after it had been assembled. In the experiment using Origami art, this difference was particularly striking: Those participants, who had spent time folding paper into shapes of cranes and frogs, offered five times more money for the creations than those participants, who had only been presented with the final outcomes.

Additional experiments showed that the IKEA effect vanished when participants were asked to take apart their previous creations, thus highlighting the importance of completion when assembling an item.

Reasons for the IKEA Effect

From an economic-rational point of view, the IKEA effect is deeply puzzling. Why would anybody put a higher price on items that required personal labour? Surely, they should offer less money for the final product because they already paid by investing time and effort? Furthermore, most people’s self-made items are likely to be amateurish, thus failing to meet the standards of their shop-bought equivalent.

Over the years, many different reasons have been suggested for the IKEA effect. Some scholars noted that people may enjoy the labour associated with certain items. However, while this may hold true for a child assembling a LEGO set, it is less likely to apply to the building of furniture. Others hypothesised that people prefer self-made items, because making something from scratch allows for personalisation.

This is certainly the case when knitting jumpers and being able to choose your own colours and patterns. However, the argument does not apply to flat pack furniture, where the final result looks the same no matter who assembles it. Hence, even though the enjoyment of labour and options for personalisation may play a role in some instances, they are unlikely to explain the IKEA effect in its entirety.

Instead, the following human tendencies may offer additional reasons for the power of the IKEA effect.

  1. Effort justification: After exerting time and effort into a laborious task such as assembling furniture, many people feel the need to justify their efforts—both to themselves and others. Nobody likes to waste their time and this might mean that people are unwilling to admit if the result of their effort wasn’t satisfactory. Consequently, they are likely to overvalue self-made items.
  2. Need for effectance: This concept refers to a fundamental human drive for control over their environment. People enjoy feeling accomplished in their task and they like to show off their competence to others. As a result, they may attribute disproportionate value to the fruits of their own labour.
  3. Positive emotions: By spending time exploring and creating an object, people often increase their positive feelings towards the object and may even form a type of emotional attachment. This subjective experience is likely to affect the judgement of their own creations.

How to Use the IKEA Effect to Your Advantage

Reasons for the IKEA effect are still not fully understood, but its influence on people’s choices is undeniable. So why no use it to your advantage? By employing effort and labour strategically, it is possible to increase preferences for the outcome. Here are a few examples.

  • Are your children fussy eaters? Chances are they scoff at spinach and refuse their cauliflower unless it’s smothered in cheese. To increase their liking of those healthy greens, why not involve them in your daily dinner preparation? Asking them to assemble their own veggie pizza or stack a vegetable lasagne could increase their liking for the meal and entice them to eat more healthily.
  • Would you like your partner to take better care of joint furniture? Ask them to help with the assembly of future items. After building a sofa, they will come to value it more highly. As a result, they are less likely to leave crumbs all over the covers.
  • Do you lack willpower to engage in a daily yoga or exercise practice? Boost your motivation by taking the time to design your own training plan. This may mean putting together a sequence of poses or exercises you are going to complete. The resulting class will seem more appealing and you are more likely to complete it.

The list of applications of the IKEA effect is long. How are you going to harness its power?

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