Cognitive Biases — The IKEA Effect

Investing in a product we’ve built

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Photo by Nathan Fertig on Unsplash

Why do we love something more when we’re involved in building it? Whether it’s making a house out of lego or assembling furniture, the IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which we value products we create more favourably than those that are brought pre-assembled.

Why the “IKEA” effect?

The IKEA effect comes from the Swedish manufacturer and retailer IKEA who mostly sells products that in some way require assembly (and great meatballs). There is something annoying but satisfying about putting together an item from IKEA, even when there’s a mystery screw left over or we put a table leg on the wrong way around.

Research into the IKEA effect

The experiment

Two groups were given IKEA boxes, with one group given fully-assembled versions, and the other given unassembled boxes, which they were told to put together. The second group were willing to pay much more for their box during the subsequent bidding process than those with pre-assembled boxes.

The above experiment was conducted by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, Daniel Mochon of Yale, and Dan Ariely of Duke. They published the results of three studies in 2011 which looked into the IKEA bias. They noted that “labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of one’s labor: even constructing a standardised bureau, an arduous, solitary task, can lead people to overvalue their (often poorly constructed) creations.”

Other research has also suggested that our own efforts lead to increased valuation only when we successfully complete tasks. When participants built and then destroyed their creations, or failed to complete them, the IKEA effect dissipated.

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Harvard Business School (Credit: Harvard Business School/CC BY 4.0)

The Betty Crocker Case Study

1950’s Betty Crocker Advert

Brands have learnt the hard way that sometimes their customers want to get involved in the process and they don’t want to feel left out or incapable. Making things too easy can make people feel undervalued and dissatisfied with the end result.

This is a problem that the brand Betty Crocker faced back in the 1950’s where people demanded convenience and speed… or so they thought. In reality, customers still wanted to be more involved in the baking process. To tackle the issue they contracted psychologist Ernest Dichter, who advised them to make one small but critical change.

What Ernest proposed was instead of using processed powered egg, that instead, the customer adds their own fresh egg into the mixture, getting them engaged in the process. This also helped make the cake rise and taste better. From an engagement point of view, this helped drive sales of the product.

Why does this effect matter?

This effect demonstrates that by encouraging people to actively participate in the development of something they’ll be more likely to consider it valuable. It’s also fair to say that this is why people who are committed to a particular product or service feel reluctant to change as they’ve contributed personally, financially or have that feeling that they are somehow “connected” to it.

This can work both in favour of your business or against you, as getting people to change their behaviour can be difficult. One thing you can do is identify a weakness and show that the problem will be solved by changing to your product or service and that it’s easy to switch to you.

User experience designer Anton Nikolov suggests incorporating the IKEA effect into design strategies — ideally, users should be able to add something “high value” but “low effort”.

“Digital designers, for example, can use sample data and editable templates to achieve the IKEA effect, ” he advises. “Make the first experience with your app feel dynamic and alive to the users. Prompt them to edit the templates and interact with the product.” Even something as simple as getting users to set up their accounts and fill in a few details can help them feel more connected to an application.

Further reading on cognitive biases:

Senior Interaction Designer at Companies House, Government. Living in Cardiff, South Wales, interested in human psychology and behaviours.

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