The Ikea Effect


When I’m driving, my car radio is usually tuned to National Public Radio (NPR), mainly because I know I’ll be entertained, hear some good music, and maybe learn something new. Not long ago “Morning Edition” reported on a phenomenon I knew nothing about: The Ikea Effect.

Ever heard of it? I hadn’t. Wikipedia explains: “The Ikea effect is a cognitive bias where labor enhances affection for its results. The name for this psychological phenomenon is in honor of the wildly successful Swedish manufacturer named Ikea, whose products typically arrive with some assembly required.”

The NPR commentator described it better:

“Imagine that, you know, you built a table,” said Daniel Mochon, a Tulane University marketing professor, who has studied the phenomenon. “Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you’re the one who created it. It’s the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect.”

Evidently, this phenomenon has been around for a long time and, according to The Harvard Business Review, has actually been exploited. A famous maker of cake mixes discovered that their product sold much better after they changed the instructions to require the addition of an egg in its preparation. (Previously, only the addition of water was needed.) It seems cooks took more pride in the results when they felt they’d contributed more to the creation of the end product.

The downside to this phenomenon is that while the person takes pleasure in her creation, she doesn’t take kindly to criticism about it. And that means the Ikea effect can be a problem for writers too. Anyone who has created a “perfect” scene—gorgeous description, snappy dialogue, biting humor—knows how hard it is to endure suggestions for improvement from well-meaning critique group members. I now understand that this is the Ikea Effect at work.

So if you have the following symptoms, you may be suffering from the negative effects of this malady:
Blindness that prevents you from seeing the flaws in your creation
Deafness that blocks negative comments about your creation
Prickliness that makes you grit your teeth when anyone suggests that your creation may be anything less than wonderful

And one final thought. If you see signs of the Ikea Effect in friends, it’s best to just nod and smile and keep your mouth shut. Trust me when I say they won’t appreciate hearing anything but praise for their wonky bookcase or the latest chapter of their book.

Harvard Business Review:

About these ads

21 responses to “The Ikea Effect

  1. Great post! I’m grinning here as I recall “perfect” scenes in writing that didn’t have the same effect on Beta readers….or that “wonky bookcase!”

  2. That’s a smart analogy, Sandy! As I was reading the piece I was relating to the building aspect, chuckling as I thought of the array of tools I possess – so many that it’s not sugar but hammers and needlenose pliers my male neighbours knock on my door to borrow.
    I laughed out loud when you turned the effect to writing. When I look at my writing with a bit more wisdom, I see the cracks where I could have lined up the pieces with more precision or driven the screw one more turn…

    • I’m so glad you could relate! And thank you for taking the analogy a little further. You’re right — the tweaks we sometimes need to make in our writing can only be seen with “a bit more wisdom” and by overcoming the Ikea Effect.

  3. Sandra, I love the way you apply the Ikea Effect to writing! So true…What about applying it to our readers? I know of some writers who offer different endings to draw in their readers, notably Amélie Nothomb, the most famous YA Lit author in France. And there’s much talk lately of digital interactive writing where different plot paths are offered and readers pick what they like, thus participating in writing the novel…Another Ikea effect?

    • Interesting idea! If the Ikea Effect truly does apply, then readers would definitely enjoy being able to add their input to a story. It will be interesting to see if this is successful.

  4. This is so true. So many times we think we’ve created an interesting scene/chapter and the unassuming reader says “oh, I skimmed that part”. What?! That really gets me hackles up a toot. I thought the part about adding the egg was great. If that’s true, I guess it’s all in the wrist and how you crack that egg.

    • And after you crack the egg, you have to actually stir the mixture. Hard to believe that minuscule investment in time and effort would make someone buy a certain cake mix, isn’t it?

  5. Great post. I think the Ikea effect applies to many. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Thanks for sharing about the Ikea Effect. I never heard about it, but it’s so true.

  7. Great post! Perhaps the Ikea Effect is why “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories for children and young adults has been so popular. Finding a way to engage the reader is always helpful, but I have had friends writing psychology, self-help, workbooks that took it a little too far with too many blank pages to fill in.
    Wanted to thank you for this post, as it is both new knowledge to me and inspiring!

    • Thank you for stopping by to leave a comment. I think you’re right–this may be one reason the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories are so popular. I also agree that too many fill-in-the-page worksheets can be off-putting to many people.

  8. In shrink talk we call this cognitive dissonance, the more effort we put in and the less pay we receive the more we convince ourselves that we really liked what we did. This is a great piece. As a moderator in a writers’ group, I often see the IKEA effect at work, or perhaps it is just that too many people grew up getting a trophy every time they farted and having every effort, no matter how lacking, immediately pinned to the refrigerator door by their doting mother.

    • I like that – “cognitive dissonance.” Is there a term for those people who receive recognition for every little accomplishment? I can think of a few laymen’s terms!

  9. Sandy, it’s true to the last word, although I didn’t know it had a name. Thank you for a most enlightening post. I’ve shared it. I find it essential for writers!

  10. Oh this is so true. I went into a major funk because my editor criticized the dialog in my latest. I did eventually prune the dialog.

  11. I never liked IKEA, but I like that concept. I was lucky to have a handy husband who could fashion great furniture for our household, but when I attacked learning to sew clothing, I had a lot of ‘IKEA” effects–my family members ‘loved’ my efforts, just didn’t wear them out of the house. :)

  12. skakiwimom

    Reading your article about the “IKEA Effect” made me question the meaning of the acronym. I did a little research to find out more, and here is what I discovered:
    Ingvar Kamprad (the founder’s name = IK)
    Elmtaryd (the farm he grew up on = E)
    Agunnaryd (his home parish in Smaland, South Sweden = A)
    LOL! With names like these, it’s no wonder “some assembly is required”.

  13. I know what you mean, having had many pieces of furniture from Ikea myself. The main reason for buying those were for me the reasonable price point and the funky European style. As far as my writing is concerned, I really listen and follow my editor’s suggestions for changes and sort of cringe sometimes hearing the advice of others, but like you said, grin and bear it, expressing my appreciation for the advice (but not following it).
    Nice piece, well put, thanks.

  14. jacquiegum

    Wow! Never heard of the Ikea effect before today…I’ve stayed away from the joint as I’ve heard so many nightmare stories about the “some assembly required.” Brilliant analogy..comparing it to writing! I like to think I remain open to honest critique…I think most of us do. But then… but then… the scene I always loved the most, thought was downright perfect falls prey to my critique group and though not shattered, I am a little chipped! The good thing is, that the feeling passes and most often I see where they are right! Not sure how that compares to an Ikea table….. Great job Sandy…loved the post!