There’s an intriguing phenomenon called the IKEA effect and the scientific paper that named it begins with a related story. When instant cake mixes appeared on the market in the 1950s, housewives apparently were not won over. There was something too easy about them. Eventually, instant cake mix manufacturers altered the recipe to require the addition of an egg. As the authors conclude, “infusing the task with labour appeared to be a crucial ingredient” for the widespread adoption of these mixes.
The IKEA effect is the observed phenomenon by which we place a higher value on an object we successfully assembled, either partly or completely, than on the same object that comes pre-assembled. As the researchers who coined the phrase succinctly put it, labour leads to love. The idea is that assembling a piece of IKEA furniture makes us see the finished product as more valuable than if it had been delivered to us ready for use.
It is important to point out that many of the studies that tested for the existence of this effect only involved undergraduate students, a common problem in psychological research. It turns out we know a lot about the behaviour of university students enrolled in psychology classes; whether or not this knowledge translates to anyone else is not always clear.
Scientists in the field are still trying to figure out what might explain the IKEA effect: why is it that, as seen in the original study of the effect, you may be ready to shell out 23 cents for an origami frog you made yourself whereas your neighbour would look at that same frog and offer you 5 cents for it? It may have to do with the feeling you get from signalling your competence to others. It may be linked to feeling a sense of ownership of the things you built and thus not wanting to risk losing them. It may be that you put a price on the efforts you deployed. There is contradictory data in this very recent literature.
But if this IKEA effect is indeed real and generalizable, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it is a little irrational for two people to look at the same object and value it differently based on whether or not they put it together: after all, the object is the same and will fulfill the same function. One more proof that our brain is not a logical computer. However, if something feels more valuable to us and thus brings us more joy because we had a hand at piecing it together, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
We simply have to be mindful that just because we renovated a room in our house all by ourselves and we feel this work adds a lot to the house’s value, a prospective buyer may not feel the same way. Labour, after all, leads to love.