If you’ve ever bought a piece of unassembled furniture from Ikea, think about your feeling when you got it home: did you stack the flat packs in a corner with a faint sense of dread and say “I’ll get around to it later”—or did you rip open the cardboard on the spot and get busy with those wordless instructions and Allen wrenches? I have to admit I’m in the second camp—I was an Ikea junkie as soon as their first store showed up on the east coast of the United States, a couple of hours’ drive from where I live in New York down in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. Twenty years later, there’s one right here in Brooklyn, 15 minutes from my apartment … dangerous proximity.
Over the years I’ve put together so many Billy bookcases—tall, short, narrow, wide, extra shelf on top, white laminate, birch finish, you name it—that at one point I actually caught myself musing about advertising my assembly skills on Craigslist for the benefit of the feeble get-around-to-it-later types. But common sense prevailed when I considered the possibility that potential clients’ requirements might extend beyond bookshelves to items that required power tools. Because my dirty little secret is that I really have no talent at all for crafts or building things per se—I’m just good at following directions and slotting the right bolt into the right hole. And I love that feeling of pride after I’ve hammered the last tiny nail into the bookcase’s backboard and there the whole thing is, looking just like the picture in that fat catalogue.
And that’s it right there: the Ikea effect—essentially, the disproportionate sense of pride and ownership that we feel for objects on which we have lavished our own labor, however intrinsically simple the work. Researchers from Harvard, Duke and Tulane universities have been studying people’s attitudes to things they make—or at least put together—with their own hands; the results of their experiments appeared in a September article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. As far as consumer psychology is concerned, by far the most relevant conclusion the researchers arrived at was that in their experiments involving having people build Ikea boxes (“the most boring product we could find in the world”), the experiment subjects were willing to pay a 63 percent premium for the boxes they’d put together themselves. That’s 63 percent more than what they said they’d pay for the same boxes, preassembled and ready to use.
Not too little work, not too much
This turns out to be an old story. As one of the co-authors of the study, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, points out in a piece by Misty Harris in the Ottawa Citizen, “Many people have some kind of mug or pottery bowl that they made sometime in their life, and that kind of looks really terrible—but they’d never ever throw it away. So we know that people come to really overvalue the things they make with their own hands. Our question was ‘How big is the effect?’” Sixty-three percent bigger, apparently.
Companies like Betty Crocker found out about the (at that point unnamed) Ikea effect decades ago, when they first began selling instant cake mix and discovered that it was unpopular largely because people were embarrassed that all they had to do was add water and put it in the oven. So they modified the recipe and made you add an egg as well; the mixes began selling like, er, hot cakes. “When they made the procedure more complicated and required people to buy more ingredients,” says Norton, “they actually liked it better because they felt they were contributing something to the meal.”
It almost seems, therefore, that what companies like Ikea are selling essentially is access to the materials we need to feel creative and productive (and not very creative, actually—most Ikea products aren’t customizable, so it’s about the instruction-following, not the making it personal). However, it turns out to be important not to make the work too difficult—if it gets too hard (I always struggled with the drawers in Ikea cupboards and chests of drawers, for some reason), and you have to give up or feel that you haven’t done a good job, you’ll end up hating your botched product. But why not try? After all, as the brutally honest Professor Norton says, “Yes, it might be difficult. But it’s not as though you’re going to substitute that time doing something amazing; you’re going to substitute it watching TV.”—TAMARA GLENNY