One of the things people value in a product is the effort they have to invest in it. And this holds true even if a professional would have done a better job. What is the psychology behind the Ikea effect?
Ikea has reached the venerable age of seventy-five. The idea took a while to catch on outside Sweden, but the Netherlands was one of the first countries to embrace it. The first Dutch branch of Ikea opened forty years ago this month, so here too the celebrations are in full swing. Ikea is now the world’s largest furniture store, with an annual turnover of well over 30 billion euros. Many houses all over the world contain Ikea furniture: a Klippan sofa, a series of Billy bookshelves, or a Pax wardrobe… But what exactly is the secret of Ikea’s success? How come Ikea still manages to do well, when many other department stores are having a hard time?
In its stores, Ikea doesn’t just sell furniture: it creates an all-round experience. People view a visit to Ikea as an outing. Ikea also offers made-to-measure interior design advice and provides high-quality design furniture at an affordable price. And don’t forget the restaurant, and the hotdogs by the tills. All these are important reasons for Ikea’s success, but the most important of all is the concept it all started with: Ikea’s self-assembly furniture.
In their 2012 study, the social psychologists Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely concluded that the self-assembly concept is indeed effective, and coined the term Ikea effect. The Ikea effect refers to people’s tendency to place more value on things they have created or made themselves (even in part) than on things made or designed by others. The researchers carried out several experiments that demonstrated that people value a product more if they have to exert effort to make it, even if the result is less good than if a professional had made it. The effort people invest in a product means they value it more and are therefore prepared to pay more for it.
Ikea are on to a winning formula, then, but the Ikea effect only seems to kick in if certain conditions are met. It is only if people actually succeed in assembling a specific product that they find the product attractive, feel more positive, and feel more emotionally invested in the product. A successfully assembled end product makes people feel proud and competent. The effects have been shown in children as young as five.
Of course Ikea is not the only company to apply this strategy. Companies that make cake mixes where you have to add ingredients work on similar principles. And in education too we try to get children to take ownership of their learning process. Leaving some things open and not planned stimulates pupils to engage more with the learning process and the topics taught, and this seems to have a positive effect. Nevertheless, the researchers had good reasons to call this phenomenon the Ikea effect: people do associate the self-assembly concept first and foremost with this company. And they keep coming back for more and continue to enjoy the outing… even if it does entail sitting in a traffic jam for hours on end.