The IKEA Effect

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I’m sure most of us are familiar with the world-famous furniture company, but maybe not so au fait with the ‘IKEA effect’. Frustration at following tedious instructions and often poorly assembled household structures may be what comes to mind for many when we think of the flat-pack giant, but beyond this, there may be more at play.

The IKEA effect describes how putting personal effort into something, in this case the construction of your furniture, can increase your perceived value of the item. This psychological concept was first coined in 2011 by three researchers: Norton, Mochon, and Ariely. In other words, the IKEA effect is a cognitive bias that makes us think more favourably of something if we’ve had a hand in its creation.

The IKEA effect can encourage us to work harder, when we want to see the idea that we created become something tangible. We feel more connected to something if we feel it has our name attached to it, as it becomes far more personal. We take greater ownership of ideas that we’ve come up with or contributed to, and this leads to more buy-in and support.

When we participate in the creation of something, we become more invested and place more value on it. We see the fruit of our labour as having greater worth than the same item or output that was created by someone else.

overhead view of woman looking at furniture instructions

Putting it to the test

Here at BestAtDigital, we tested this approach at a recent behavioural science-focused away day, with fascinating results. Using Dan Ariely’s guidance (we recommend his book), we set up an origami-based IKEA effect experiment. We divided our colleagues into two self-selecting groups: one that liked origami, and one that didn’t (there were some very strong opinions about origami from both ends of the spectrum). We then randomly split each group into two, leaving us with four groups: two that liked origami and two that didn’t.

close up of teams hands working on origami together

Our facilitator told us that everyone would be making an origami pagoda in their respective groups. Now comes the interesting bit… There were two sets of instructions —one far more detailed than the other. Unbeknown to the groups, one group of origami likers and one group of origami dislikers were given the basic, more difficult instructions, while the other two groups were given the detailed, easier instructions. When we’d built the pagodas, we were all asked to (anonymously) suggest a value for their individual creation. These were then averaged across each group.

What we found was that when given the more difficult instructions, i.e. when more effort was involved, people valued their pieces greater than those with the easier instructions. We even found that the people who’d admitted to not liking origami placed a higher value on their pieces when they’d put more effort in.

This shows us that when we have input in something, we place greater value on it, even if it’s something we may not have considered enjoyable or a task we had any great desire to do. This may be partially explained by ‘effort justification’, where we unconsciously place greater value on an action that has expended more of our effort. A sense of competence may also be the driving force behind our higher valuations on self-made products — the origami pagodas demonstrated our competence and capability to ourselves and others, leading us to evaluate them more highly.

Not just for flat pack

This does not necessarily have to be limited to flat-pack furniture, or indeed, origami pagodas. This experiment shows that if we are included in the process, be that idea generation, brainstorming, production, construction or delivery of a product or service, we place greater value on it and have more buy-in. Limiting or blocking contributors on a team may lead to withdrawal of interest and a lack of motivation when it comes to completing tasks, due to a feeling of lack of personal connection and ownership.

Encouraging employees, or indeed customers, to be part of the design, decision-making or brainstorming process may result in greater engagement, input, and lead to a more efficient process for all parties. If customers have felt part of the process, they are likely to place more value on the end product or service, which contributes to customer satisfaction.

Are there any downsides to the IKEA effect?

Of course, not everyone is going to have a great idea all the time, so it’s advisable to use this approach with caution. What if we can’t see any failings or omissions in our ideas, or we aren’t willing to take constructive criticism? In these situations, the IKEA effect can make it difficult to allow for collaboration, or any flexibility in our ideas or output. The ‘commitment effect’, first introduced by Barry Shaw in 1976, captures this well, and describes a scenario where we are unwilling to compromise on our ideas, despite evidence of their risks and drawbacks. This is understandable because we place a value on our time and effort, and we don’t want our input to fail to make the cut.

origami animal model

Putting the pieces together

In summary, understanding the power of the IKEA effect in any business, both from the perspective of colleagues and our clients, can offer excellent value in terms of getting everyone on board and taking ownership of ideas and output. Allowing contribution and feedback can be crucial in commitment to seeing a project through to fruition, and/or belief in the value it brings. However, that doesn’t mean we should be rushing to hand over all decision-making on our projects. We need to be mindful about the level of commitment that this can bring about and be able to identify when this has escalated to a level that can have a detrimental impact on the end result.

At BAD, we recommend a measured approach, encouraging sharing of ideas, offering opportunity to contribute, and, most importantly, collaboration. Underpinned by the principles of behavioural science, this is the key to getting the best out of us, and the best of our ideas, with constructive interactions and feedback,  allowing us all to take a sense of pride and ownership in our work without letting our ideas run away from us.

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