How Much Work Do We Have to Put Into a Product Before We Value It More Than Something an Expert Made?

Many of us have some special object we made—perhaps a leaky mug from a long-ago pottery class—that we have lugged from city to city with every move; even worse, many of us have a significant other who feels the same way about their special object—an all-too-watery watercolor from an evening painting class—who asks us to help them lug it around, too. Why do we see our mug as special and theirs as something better suited for landfill?

My research with my colleagues Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely suggests that when we invest our own precious time and labor into creating something, we imbue it with far greater value than more objective observers like our spouses—what we have called the “IKEA effect.” In our experiments, we’ve asked people to make things like origami cranes, LEGO helicopters, and IKEA storage boxes. No matter how mundane the task—and assembling IKEA boxes is no great artistic endeavor—we find that people become more attached to what they made than to similar objects made by others. In some cases, they even love their products as much as objectively better products assembled by experts.

Importantly, though, we don’t love everything we make equally. First, the labor has to be hard enough to really make us feel that we’ve put some sweat equity into the project. When making things ourselves is too easy—say, screwing a light bulb into a new lamp—people do not come to overvalue their creations. On the other end of the spectrum, tasks that are too difficult—such that we can’t even finish them—lead to frustration and disappointment (and, let’s be honest, swearing), which also undercuts the value we place on our creations.

In fact, we have shown that when people create objects in the sweet spot of “difficult-enough-but-not-too-difficult,” they not only love those objects more, but also experience greater happiness; it really is fun to create. Sadly, though, most of us pass up the opportunity to create at every possible moment, preferring our food to be prepackaged and our products pre-assembled. Our research suggests that in so doing, we are leaving happiness on the (dinner) table.

Michael Norton is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Category: Q&A

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One Response

  1. CrankOtter says:

    Why does every “opportunity” always fall to the cooking food example. For me, Daily_Food:Cooking::Commuting:Driving in that I hate commuting but love driving. When I spend my creative energy on cooking, I want it to be spent on something I care about. When I drive, I want it to be when I can go fast and/or where I can concentrate on good scenery. The commute, I make as short as possible.

    For me, putting creative energy into my quotidian food-fuel is a waste. I only have so much time in a day, I can’t spend it creating EVERYTHING from scratch. Allow me my pre-packaged, frozen Paneer Tikka Masala from Trader Joes. Allow me to buy a ream of pre-made paper from Staples, and use pre-packaged ink from a cheap Papermate and lick the pre-gummed envelope to close it. I’ll save the hand made cards and pretty pens and sealing wax for special occasions, thanks.

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