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Multiple studies have shown that people assign a higher value to something they "made" themselves, even if they only picked out the color or tightened a few screws. Why does that happen? Psychologists have a few theories.

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Thanks to CuriosityStream for supporting this episode of SciShow Psych!

Go to CuriosityStream.com/Psych to learn more. { ♪INTRO }. You know how when you build something yourself— like a table from IKEA—you’re really proud of it?

It doesn’t matter that it’s a bit wonky and you have some left-over screws that were maybe, definitely, supposed to go somewhere…. It’s still b-e-a-utiful. It’s easily as nice as anything you could have bought at that fancy furniture store in town.

You might even think it’s a little bit better than those other tables. Well…. I hate to break it to you, but it probably isn’t all that special.

You’re likely experiencing a phenomenon known as the IKEA effect: a cognitive bias where people misguidedly put a higher value on something just because they made it themselves. And understanding why you love that wonky table so much could help you live your best life. Harvard researchers first wrote about the IKEA effect in a study where they had people make IKEA furniture, fold origami, and build sets of LEGO blocks.

The participants felt that their amateur creations were as good as expert versions. Not only that, they priced their handiwork way higher than other people did, and thought everyone would appreciate their creations as much as they did. Now, multiple studies have shown this effect.

Labor does kind of lead to love, and it’s not just with flat-pack furniture. It applies to pretty much anything you can customize. Experts suggest that the IKEA effect could also apply to things like home renovations if you take a do it yourself, or DIY, approach.

And even something as small as picking the color of an item can make you see it as more valuable. But there’s nothing inherently better about things you screw together or paint— they’re not made from higher quality materials, or something like that. You just think your “self-made” stuff is better than the off-the-shelf version.

That’s the IKEA effect. And psychologists have a few theories as to why it occurs. One is that making something, even if you only put one screw in, makes you feel accomplished and competent.

That’s because the shelf or whatever acts as physical proof that you successfully did a thing— a kind of trophy if you will— which you can show off. And those bragging rights give you an emotional boost. Another reason you might be extra proud of your DIY is because you believe it saved you money.

Research has shown that if you feel like you’re a “smart-shopper”— basically, that you’re somehow responsible for getting a discount or saving money on something— then you feel happier and better about that product. And it may be that building your own stuff enhances something called the endowment effect: the fact that simply owning a thing can make you overvalue it. In studies, people consistently say they’ll pay more for stuff they own, even if it’s the exact same as the other stuff being offered, and even if they just came to own the stuff like 30 seconds ago.

And researchers in 2016 found that building something leads to what they called psychological ownership— basically, the feeling that you own it even if you technically don’t. But when it comes to the IKEA effect, many psychologists think it’s mostly the result of effort justification. That’s the idea that the more work you put into something, the more you like it because you have to convince yourself it was worth all the trouble.

If you didn’t, then you’d end up feeling cognitive dissonance— the mental anguish that arises from contradicting ideas in your head. Essentially, it would just be wrong for you to have worked hard to make something that isn’t valuable. And since you can’t go back in time and not put the effort in, the easiest way for your brain to fix this discrepancy is to jack up the perceived value.

The idea that the IKEA effect can be explained by effort justification does make a lot of sense. But more recently, research has suggested something else might be happening. In short, you might like your own creations because you believe they’re an extension of your identity.

That table is a part of you. That’s the conclusion of a 2018 study in the journal Cognition, anyway. The researchers looked at the IKEA effect in children by having them build monster toys, and found that it basically doesn’t show up until around age 5.

That’s right when kids really start to have a good idea of who they are— what psychologists call a self-concept. Intriguingly, the amount of effort the kids put into their creations didn’t affect how highly they valued them. And they still thought their own monsters were better, even when they knew from the start that they wouldn’t get to keep them, suggesting ownership or the trophy effect weren’t really in play.

So the researchers concluded the IKEA effect most likely comes from people viewing the things they make as extensions of themselves. And that’s not as weird as it might sound. People often use their possessions as an expression of who they are; just think about the car you drive, or the clothes you wear.

So, when you personalize something, or have a hand in making it, ou may see it as more representative of who you are. In the end, psychologists haven’t pinpointed exactly what causes the IKEA effect, and it may be that some combination of these ideas is what makes you so enamored with that table, no matter how crooked it is. If all this has you feeling a little manipulated by your favorite furniture company, it’s good to keep in mind you can use the IKEA effect to your advantage, too.

Like, it could help you get your family to eat healthier meals. A study published in 2018 looked at the eating behavior of children between the ages of five and seven, and found that kids who were involved in preparing food ate more of it—even if it was a salad. They also ate more dessert, too, if they helped make it, but who can blame them?

And there’s nothing to say that loving your cheap, self-assembled furniture is a bad thing. At the end of the day, if you think your creation is beautiful and it “sparks joy”, as Marie Kondo would say, that’s all that really matters. So go on, love that wonky table!

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