Last week I had the dubious pleasure of assembling some flat-pack furniture from everyone’s favourite value store, the ubiquitous Scandinavian giant IKEA. Like many of my contemporaries, I served my apprenticeship, in furniture-building terms, on the inferior British version, MFI, cursing and swearing with the best of them when discovering that the 16 2-inch screws required to complete the job numbered only 15 in reality, and that on completion the missing screw would make the difference between a sturdy family heirloom and a pile of kindling. It wasn’t entirely the fault of MFI, however, since back then I felt that the pictorial instructions were included as a bonus – a kind of first aid kit to be opened only in case of emergency – and that the whole thing was really down to male intuition and an innate sense of logic. Much experience and many years later, and heeding the words of Thucydides, as you do, that ‘few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought’, I carefully opened the boxes and started to READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.
What I didn’t appreciate until well after the event was that the sense of achievement I felt on completing the job and realising that it could hold several books without reverting to its original state, has actually been identified and named by a group of American academics as the ‘Ikea Effect‘. In a series of experiments, Daniel Mochon, a marketing professor at Tulane University, along with his colleagues Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael Norton of the Harvard Business school, demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they have built themselves. Building your own stuff ‘boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent’ apparently. I’m going to ignore the fact, for now, that the bookcase had actually been ‘built’ by someone else and only ‘assembled’ by me. Let’s not go splitting hairs when feelings of pride and competence are at stake.
Now any English teacher in the land (of Britain that is) could have pointed to the story of Spit Nolan by the Irish-born writer Bill Naughton and said, ‘He told them so’. In this much-loved tale of working-class kids from the North of England, the eponymous hero, Spit, is without question the district’s champion trolley rider, the ‘trolleys’ being the carts or buggies made from bits of junk collected in the local scrapyard. Spit’s success is all the more remarkable for the fact that he is recovering from tuberculosis, a common illness in poorer areas of Britain in the first half of the 20th Century. Spit’s trolley has been lovingly crafted by his own hands, and he remains unbeaten until his friend Ernie appears with the Rolls-Royce of carts, assembled in his father’s factory by his engineering colleagues. The challenge is set – and the outcome in the balance – but the moral of the story is already making itself known to us, in flashing lights, in the words of the unlikely hero himself:-
“You own nothing in this world except those things you’ve taken a hand in the making of, or else you earned the money to buy them.”
Spit Nolan by Bill Naughton
Not everything about the Tulane report was positive however; it comes with a health warning. One of the implications of the Ikea Effect is that we tend to fall in love with projects we have spent a great deal of time working on, even when they are quite clearly failing, losing any sense of objectivity along the way. Which is why we need ‘critical friends’ who are prepared to tell us that in fact that shelf is not quite straight, or that lesson plan might just be a tad unrealistic.
“It’s a good reason — and this is true whether you are running a big complicated project involving millions of dollars or finishing a third-grade craft project — to have someone from the outside, who isn’t invested in you or your work, give you some objective feedback before you show your project to the world.”
Shankar Vedantam, NPR