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Ikea Makes Us All Feel Like Master Carpenters

We really do think our mediocre constructions are just as good as those of the very finest of craftsman

smithsonian.com

Image: Robyn Lee

There’s a certain satisfaction in pushing the last wooden peg into an Ikea bookshelf. Sure, it’s kind of crooked, and you have a couple of extra pieces left over (they give you extra screws on purpose, right?) but it’s yours. I mean, you’re really just one step away from chopping down your own tree and handcrafting a beautiful custom table, right? Well, no, but that’s what the process will make you feel, researchers found.

In a recent study called “The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love,” researchers at Harvard asked people to build things like Ikea boxes, origami and Lego projects, and, after the projects were complete, asked the participants how they felt about their handiwork. The researchers found that we really do think our mediocre constructions are just as good as those of the very finest of craftsman:

Participants saw their amateurish creations as similar in value to experts’ creations, and expected others to share their opinions. We show that labor leads to love only when labor results in successful completion of tasks; when participants built and then destroyed their creations, or failed to complete them, the IKEA effect dissipated. Finally, we show that labor increases valuation for both “do-it-yourselfers” and novices.

Over at NPR, they spoke with the researcher behind this study, Michael Norton.

Norton and his colleague also wanted to find out why this happens. In another paper, they propose that “creating products fulfills consumers’ psychological need to signal competence to themselves and to others, and that feelings of competence associated with self-created products lead to their increased valuation.”

NPR says that this is both good, and bad:

There is an insidious element here: People made to feel incompetent may be more vulnerable to the Ikea Effect. On the other hand, Mochon has found, when people are given a self-esteem boost, they appear to be less interested in demonstrating to themselves and to others that they are competent.

In fact, it’s not just Ikea furniture that people become attached to. Any project that you’re working on is hard to have perspective on. Which is why big projects fail too, NPR says:

It’s a good reason — and this is true whether you are running a big complicated project involving millions of dollars or finishing a third-grade craft project — to have someone from the outside, who isn’t invested in you or your work, give you some objective feedback before you show your project to the world.

Basically, your crooked Ikea bookshelf is a lot like Apple Maps. You feel proud of it, but everyone else can see just how wack it is.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Why Experts are Almost Always Wrong

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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