Day 537: In Praise Of The IKEA Effect

originally published June 20, 2013

In my unending quest to figure out why the human mind dances the steps it does, I occasionally like to dip my curiosity into a warm bowl of psychology, just to see what color it turns. Often it transforms into the murky grey of incomprehension, but sometimes it emerges cloaked in the rosy red hue of alarm. Does my brain really do that? Am I powerless to self-reprogram, hopefully toward a more logical end?

Well, probably. I still get Pavlovian when I smell bacon or coffee in mid-brew. I still respond with the same knee-jerk spike in blood pressure and neurotic angst when faced with a particularly poor driver who happens to be soiling my day with their unpleasant existence. And I have no doubt that I’m as much a slave to the cognitive biases that pepper all our brains with an empirically observable weirdness.

Like the IKEA Effect.

Let’s say you’re in the market for a new bookcase. You have three options. First, you can build one from scratch, but let’s rule that out straight away. Hand me a stack wooden boards and the most I’ll be able to build for you is a fire. Second, you can go out and buy a pre-made bookcase – a joyously convenient solution. But if you head to your local IKEA, you can end up with something in the middle. Everything is pre-cut, pre-shaped and supplied, but you still have to follow the instructions given by the amorphous little blob-man in the directions booklet to build your final product.

But guess what… you’ll like it more. Studies done at Harvard, Yale and Duke all confirm that consumers tend to place a higher value on something they built themselves, be it an EXPEDIT bookcase from IKEA or a Build-A-Bear stuffed unicorn in a polo shirt. Even if the quality is lousy, even if you went a little wild with your allen-key and mangled little hexagon gashes all down the side of the piece, you’ll still appreciate that you constructed something functional where once there was a stack of pressure-treated boards and a heaping pile of loose, homeless books.

Another quirky brain-habit we all follow is the Peak-end Rule. This is where your brain will judge an experience as slightly less shitty if the last part of it is a bit more bearable than the rest. Essentially, you’ll remember the peak of the action and you’ll remember the end. For example, a group of poor hapless subjects were experienced to a loud, painful cacophony of noises (I’m thinking Yoko Ono may have been involved). A second group gets the same treatment, but that is followed up by a less loud, less painful cacophony (perhaps a Fran Drescher karaoke recording, but not too loud). Despite having spent twice as long in the experiment, the second group would give a less unpleasant review of the experience – the peak was the same (awful), but the flavor at the end wasn’t quite so aggravating.

This has a practical use beyond making people listen to avant-garde art music. People involved in buying a car are going to remember the peak of the experience and the end. For that reason, it’s a good idea not to finish with the awkward signing of papers and haggling over price and rust-proof undercoating. Install a ball pit and a wet bar and let customers who just bought a new Honda Civic go drink and play for thirty minutes. They’ll recommend your dealership to all their friends.

When singing the Alphabet Song – as we all do at least three or four times a week, am I right? – do you find that you throw a little more vocal emphasis upon the letters in your own name? Well, that might be a side-effect of the Name-letter Effect. It’s a form of implicit egoism, that little electrical impulse that propels one to be more likely to embrace people, places and situations that may reflect themselves.

I probably do this too, though I’d justify my preference to the letter ‘M’ not to be a reflection of an insatiable ego-driven narcissism, but rather a testament to the sonorous qualities of the letter on its own, and its tacit humming approval of whatever deliciousness I may be experiencing. Mmmmmmm…..

One study from the Journal of Personality And Social Psychology suggests that our name-letter preference might influence our choice of relationship partner, career, and where we live. This may be true – I have always wanted to move to Missoula, Montana and become a muffin manufacturer. My wife’s name starts with a ‘J’, but then I’ve always had a thing for Marlee Matlin and Minnie Mouse.

And speaking of M’s, we can’t forget the delightful Lady Macbeth – she has her very own cognitive bias. The Lady Macbeth Effect happens when a feeling of shame is followed by the urge to clean something, akin to the infamous “Out, damn spot! Where the hell did I put the Oxyclean?” scene from Shakespeare’s play.

The study that proved this involved asking subjects to fill in the following words: W _ _ H, S H _ _ E R and S _ _ P. Most subjects provided a variety of solutions, like WISH, SHAKER, SOUP, or WITH, SHINER, SLIP, and so on. But the group that was first made to recall a bad deed they had done in the past were 60% likely to fill in the letters to make WASH, SHOWER and SOAP.

Maybe that’s why my house is such a mess. I just don’t feel guilty enough to really get my cleaning groove on.

I love this one. The Rhyme-As-Reason Effect implies that people are more likely to believe something is true if it is presented as a rhyme. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was Johnnie Cochran’s infamous catchphrase that helped sway the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial. Had Cochran tried out, “If it doesn’t fit, then damn, this guy is innocent!” the jury may not have swooned quite so much over that moment of courtroom showmanship.

A study published in Psychological Science tested the perception of “what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” up against “what sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks.” The former was believed to be more accurate than the latter. This is tied to something called the Keats Heuristic, in which a statement’s truth is examined according to how it was presented – its aesthetic qualities.

For proof of this, listen to the most eloquent and bullshit-laden political speeches made over the past century. Now if they’d just make that unnamed IKEA blob-guy more appealing to the eye, I might not hate building his furniture so much.

But still, it looks great, doesn’t it?

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