But can purchasing modernist flat-pack furniture from the Swedish mega-retailer and putting it together all by yourself (good for YOU!) lead to a bloated sense of self-worth?
Does holding an Allen key in one hand and the totally incomprehensible yet simplistic directions for a $150 media cabinet fill you with a certain pride that swells once you’ve spent three hours successfully putting the thing together? Oh, wait a minute. Is said media cabinet totally off-kilter because you got distracted and skipped a couple of steps? It doesn’t really matter because you put it together and that’s all that matters. It’s still beautiful and so are you.
If you’ve ever experienced such a sensation then well, my DIY-savvy friend, you may have experienced the IKEA Effect, a phenomenon studied by Tulane marketing professor Daniel Mochon along with Michael Norton at Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely at Duke University. Through a series of experiments Mochon and his colleagues set out to demonstrate that people tend to have a greater attachment toward self-made items than compared to the same items put together by someone else. In a more recent study published in The International Journal of Research in Marketing, the team discovered why: Assembling your own stuff boasts your levels of competence and pride while signaling to others that you are indeed the man (or woman).
Mochon explains to NPR in a recent interview:
Imagine that, you know, you built a table. Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you're the one who created it. It's the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the IKEA Effect.
There’s a catch: People made to feel incompetent may inherently be more susceptible to the IKEA effect. And as Mochon has found, when people are given a boost in self-esteem they seem less interested in displaying their newly found competence to others … and themselves.
NPR’s Shankar Vedantam suggests to Mochon that perhaps IKEA should start asking customers to solve extremely hard math problems upon entering the store to see if those who were unable to solve the problems end up purchasing even more self-assemble furniture in order to prove to themselves that they aren’t total failures.
Responds Mochon: “It would definitely be a risky strategy. If consumers ever found out that IKEA was making them feel dumb just to sell more tables, I'm not sure what the backlash would be against IKEA.”
I for one would never fall for this because I’m lousy at math and at putting together IKEA furniture. Numerous times, I’ve experienced what I guess they’d call the Anti-IKEA Effect: My frustrations and failings when it comes to DIY furniture assembly have resulted in me buying home goods that someone else made (hello, West Elm) just so I can feel less bad about my own work.
I've learned my lesson, however. The last time I purchased new bookshelves from my local IKEA, I treated a friend to dinner for his assembly services. I knew that he simply loved putting the stuff together. And sure enough, he beamed proudly after completing the task, obviously very proud of himself. He made sure to keep on pointing out how easy it was. Such a breeze! He asked me why I didn't like putting it together myself. I needn't say anything ... I motioned toward the put-together-backwards entertainment console with the slated top. For me, there's a fine line between imperfection and failure. His cockiness, however, faded away when he realized he wasn’t taking the bookshelves that he built home with him.
Perhaps that will be my new thing: Buying IKEA furniture and inviting people over to assemble it for me so they can feel good about themselves. And if they’re lucky, I’ll buy them a bag of Swedish meatballs.
More over at NPR where Mochon discusses the more widespread implications of the IKEA Effect that go beyond crafting and assembling furniture.