What Do IKEA Furniture and Woks Have in Common?

Today’s post is about the IKEA effect by Mike Norton and why I love my carbon steel wok so much because of it (and why professional Chinese chefs have extremely strong emotional connections with their cookware). The IKEA effect explains why I am not crazy.

(Right: Yang wok, carbon steel which handles oil-based cooking Left: Yin wok, stainless steel for handling water based cooking, requires no seasoning)

Consumer products companies are people pleasers. To sell product they want to give as much comfort, happiness, and value to the consumer. Often times this means making a product as intuitive, simple and easy to use as possible so the consumer can be as lazy as possible.

“Siri, please write my blog post for me because I am too lazy to use my fingers.”

No, I did not write this post using Siri, but there is no doubt that companies are enabling more and more laziness (or “ease” is what Apple would say) for the consumer. This trend might not be the catch-all approach to success.

Mike Norton and his colleagues ran an experiment in which they discovered people who put effort into the products they bought, such as assembling their IKEA furniture or making their own teddy bears from Build-A-Bear, consistently overvalued these products (even if they were of a lower quality). There are two psychological explanations that are not mutually exclusive:

1) We form an emotional attachment with the product because we are spending a lot more time investing in it than we would a product that requires no upfront effort.

2) Cognitive dissonance and effort justification theory suggests we might change our cognition to explain our behavior. In this case, we increase our valuations for the product, because we want to justify why we put effort into it in the first place.

3) The infamous effect economists call sunk cost bias can be basically attributed to a combination of effort justification and emotional attachment.

Woks require an intense seasoning process before you can use them and also require some good old-school care. In other words, it is not dummy proof and requires large amounts of effort to use properly. For that reason, I love my wok so much more than any of the other quick easy fixes like non-stick pans.

It is absurd to ever hear someone talk about a personal connection with a non-stick Teflon pan. A non-stick pan gets weaker as it ages, and you buy a new one when it’s done its 2 years. Chinese chefs describe woks as “alive”, getting stronger as they age. The patina (shiny coating of anti-corroding black rust with carbonized oil that prevents the wok from rusting and sticking) builds up over time imparting a nice flavor to the food that is produced.  Home cooks have woks they pass down generation to generation.

Grace Young, award-winning Chinese cookbook writer, lists a million ways to season a wok in her book Breath of a Wok. I have tried probably five different ways to season and clean my wok and do so regularly. I worry about it incessantly at times and would never let a novice cook touch it. When it comes down to it, the wok is just a thirty dollar piece of metal that has my stamp on it (literally, the rims of the wok shows bronze splashes from the first time I erroneously used olive oil to season it).

It was something I built up and has sentimental value. Any traditional Chinese grandmother will tell you the same.

This is an example of the IKEA effect in action. A thirty dollar product has been transformed into, for me, a priceless product. Therefore, it would be fruitful for marketers to start thinking of ways to let people in on the “construction” process of the products they use—not necessarily customization features (which is already popular and need not be effortful) but finding ways to get people to expend effort. This can create enormous value.

But only if the end product is satisfying! Are there any products that inherently grow in value from “effort investments” not just from a psychological standpoint?

The key is marrying the psychological value of the IKEA effect with the tangible value that the seasoned product delivers.  I love my wok because I spent effort on it and because I see the progress and taste better dishes coming out of it every day. If a product is of a significantly inferior quality after it is assembled, there is no hope for that. It is just a bad product no matter how you spin it.

A Schoolteacher Who Ate American School Lunches For A Year

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon one of the most interesting blogs I have seen in a long time: Fed Up With Lunch. The blog is about a school teacher, who happened to forget her lunch one day and had to buy a school lunch, discovered the horrific quality of the food being served to the children.


When I visited, it turned out she had just released a book which I bought immediately since I had seen a few episodes of Jamie Oliver’s School Lunches and Jamie’s Food Revolution (two shows focused on improving school nutrition in the UK and US respectively). This book seemed even better, because Mrs. Q (now revealed as Sarah Wu) took on the task to eat school lunch everyday for a full year, documenting all the meals that were served through writing and photos.

This is an absolutely amazing idea, because Mrs. Q overcomes the social projection bias, allowing her to understand the plight that school children are facing. Often times in marketing and psychology we talk about social projection bias (termed false consensus effect in earlier research). It is widely documented in social psychology that we really do not understand others due to an inherent bias to map our own experiences and preferences onto others. It happens everywhere.

In 1977, Ross, Greene and House conducted a classic study that exposed the false consensus effect where they gave participants four stories and asked, between two courses of action, what the protagonists would do at the end of it. They were asked to estimate the percentage of their peers who choose those answers. Then they were given a few distracter survey questions and then asked to choose the answer for themselves. The results showed that those who chose course of action A for a certain story gave higher percentages for choice action A in all four scenarios!

Our first year marketing students at Harvard Business School also show this bias. The marketing course always starts off with a marketing survey asking students to fill out a survey with questions that test certain preferences or behaviors (e.g. How many times have you ever posted a video on YouTube? or Rate how much you like to eat sushi?) Then we ask the students to answer the exact same questions but to mentally step into the shoes of everyone else in the class. So what would your colleagues say on average about the Youtube question or the sushi question? We did this with a variety of questions and ALL of them showed a systematic bias– a bias to estimate other people’s answers closer to their own. People who rated higher preferences for sushi estimated that the class had higher preferences for sushi. People who gave higher numbers for the youtube question estimated that the class had higher number of uploads than those who gave lower numbers for themselves. This makes sense that in a situation of no information, people use themselves as a data point to launch their estimations BUT this bias can be detrimental to fully grasping the magnitude of the plight of others like the students who eat horrible school lunches everyday.

There are two ways to overcome the social projection bias:

1)      You do it the old fashioned way, the way social ethnographers have done it for years. Go into a community and become one of the people you wish to study. Do what they do and integrate so that you can fully step into their shoes. This is the approach Mrs. Q has taken.

2)      But if you are male and you would like to understand how females feel when they head into a Sephora store, you can’t possibly step into the shoes of a female! This is where marketing research comes in. This can take the form of people reporting to you what you are asking them OR even better, you are gathering information about their behavior without them even realizing it since what people say can often times be counter to what they actually do.

This bias is so troubling, that it has enabled us to form double standards for the food we eat and the food our children eat at school. Many people wrote to Mrs. Q over the course of the year inquiring about her health eating all this junk food at school… I found myself sympathizing for her misery as well. However, Mrs. Q responded with such a powerful statement that I realize how psychologically blind we are towards people unlike us. She said something along the lines of: the kids are eating this everyday so why are you worrying about me. I did not even feel any sort of concern towards the kids’ wellbeing until Mrs. Q mentioned it. Thank you Mrs. Q.

Panera’s Non-Profit: Pay What You Want Store

Radiohead shocked the music industry with their 2007 album, In Rainbows, when they asked fans to download their album and pay whatever they wanted. Likewise, Panera shocked the restaurant industry with the opening of a branch in Missouri that utilizes the same “Pay What You Want” pricing mechanism!

The store in Missouri, opened by Panera’s non-profit St Louis Bread Co. Cares, has the exact same menu as all other Panera locations but lets customers pay for their meals according to their own judgment. A sign that reads “Take what you need, leave your fair share” is the basic guideline. Panera has also expanded this model over the last few months to more stores in Missouri. What sorts of effects will this have for the general Panera brand going forward and is this pricing scheme “sustainable” ( however you may define the term)?

“Social Corporate Responsibility” is a word that is thrown around quite a bit in the business world today. It’s good to be a green company or a company that enforces strict labor conditions. But is what Panera doing an act of social responsibility? No, Panera is being far from just responsible. With its Pay-What-You-Want stores, Panera is being flat out charitable. It is taking the huge risk of giving away its product like a soup kitchen out of a corporate moral desire. Given Panera’s large scale success in their segment Panera can afford to take on a project like this. It was likely also true that Radiohead didn’t have as much to risk as well being a band with one of the largest worldwide fanbases.

Sustainability of this project is not an issue for Panera, but do these “Pay-What-You-Want” stores add value to the company in anyway? Definitely. Hubspot, the pioneer of Inbound Marketing, a way to market to consumers using techniques that attract customers inbound rather interrupting them, says that companies can get a lot back from giving some things out. Sounds intuitive right?

From psychological research, we know that the reciprocity norm is a strongly embedded norm in all cultures. Evolutionary psychologists even have come to say that the reciprocity norm is the backbone of building strong societies over time. Simple as that: Only good things can come out of people who want to help others who help them who in turn help others and so on. It is a positive self-perpetuating cycle.

In a study by Dennis Regan, we see that the reciprocity norm is so strong that it can even overcome effects of social unlikeability. Participants were told that they were participating in an experiment on aesthetic judgments. The researcher served as an accomplice and either presented himself in a very likeable way or unlikeable way to certain participants. Participants then rated art slides. At the end of this task, the researcher either brought back a can of coke into the experiment room or a can for himself and the participant. Participants who were given a can of Coke at the end agreed to buy twice as many raffle tickets from the researcher after the experiment compared to those who were not given the Coke. This effect was present even when the researcher presented himself in a very unlikeable manner.

So Panera knows– it is not in people’s nature to free-ride. They also know that giving away their product is a form of trial, encourages word of mouth, encourages bloggers like me to talk about them, boosts their brand image and in turn comes back to them through new customers and purchases. This loop sounds pretty darn good especially if you are also doing some good for society in the process.

Panera’s Success From a Psychological Standpoint

The obvious answer as a consumer:

Panera has the most consistent and delicious paninis ever (especially the Roasted Turkey Artichoke Panini which has been promoted from Panera’s Signature Hot Panini section of the menu to Premium Signature Hot Panini)


Find a recipe of it here (Dashing Dish offers healthy versions of recipes for popular dishes)

The not so obvious factors:

The whole idea of café bakery does not seem novel but upon closer inspection you may realize that Panera has really been a trendsetter in this category. From a psychological standpoint, I want to focus on the experience and social norm induced psychological barriers that prevent people from even stepping foot in a restaurant in the first place. Panera removes these barriers significantly and that’s why I have found myself drifting into Panera on a day when I have no idea where to get lunch.

Barrier 1 broken:

Eat alone

Eating outside of the home is usually a social event. In many cultures including the US, eating alone is perceived as an anxiety inducing action outside of the home. Eating alone signals that someone is Alone (with a capital A). The casual nature of Panera, bar seating and small tables break this barrier allowing “single eaters” to enjoy their meal in-store without the fear of being judged.

It is interesting to note that even though many Chinese restaurants are at the same price point as Panera, the mere fact that chinese restaurants are not “self service” drives “single eaters” away who just want something classy but easy. Chinese restaurants also differ from Panera for another reason.

My theory on why eating alone is ok in this situation is that fast food and hybrids like Panera veer away from the norms of the traditional family dining table. Chinese restaurants have table layouts that evokes strong communal ties. The further away a concept is from a traditional dining table, the more accessible for “single eaters”.

This sounds intuitive, but many restaurants especially casual dining joints do not realize this perception and brand themselves as “family” brands. It seems like a safe bet to include “everyone” through the family, but the family is NOT “everyone”. Branding decisions to go the family route and evoke images of warm family dishes may be a problem for chains that are in cities with huge “single eater” populations.

Barrier 2 broken:

No tip

The fast food-like setup where service personnel and customers are physically separated by a counter triggers fast food paying norms rather than your traditional restaurant tipping norms. Even though Panera is not considered a fast food chain, people feel no obligation to tip since you don’t tip at place like McDonald’s. Service is more impersonal in some sense, and this is refreshing for people who are overworked and tired of interactions with waiters while allowing them to save a few bucks for an in-store dining experience.

Barrier 3 broken:

Anti-premium and affordable

Panera’s positioning is far from taking a premium approach. It is accessible in its image removing any sort of intimidation barriers that may come with premium restaurant brands.  In other words, Panera’s sandwiches are relatively cheap but the word “cheap” is often not associated with the brand.

Barrier 4 broken:


McDonald’s is cheap. Panera is anti-premium but at the same time, anti-cheap. Cheap can be broken down into two: cheap quality or low price. Panera positions itself as good quality but at an affordable price. To some extent, the healthiness of Panera’s products is also lumped into this anti-cheap image.

I love this article about the food ad video companies that make these crazy delicious food TV commercials. You can also view a video for the whole filming process for a scene on a pasta joint on this page:


Decision: Rain chemicals on my sandwich bread, please

Bread makes or breaks a sandwich. You can have the most processed, slimy piece of space age turkey and when you put it in between chewy, vinegary pieces of fresh sourdough, you have a hundred dollar sandwich sitting in front of you.

What is the decision-making process that goes into purchasing good bread for your sandwich?  You can’t taste it beforehand if you are buying it from a supermarket, but one of the few signals of quality that you can obtain from the bread’s packaging is whether it is natural, organic, or inorganic/processed (otherwise known as “neutral” or “regular” to those who don’t work for the whole foods police). These labels of quality are broad categorizations but do provide the consumer an easy  way to divide the world of bread into good and bad.

The good: inorganic. The bad: organic.

No, those last two sentences were not mistakes.

In the current day, it is true the norm is to view organic food as good and inorganic as the inferior option. Humans are idealistic. Almost anyone can see themselves as being a supporter of the organic movement (even if one cannot afford the high price points on organic products), because it represents an undeniably glamorous aspiration.

On the contrary, inorganic bread can be superior to organic bread if you consider the variety in consumer behavior profiles. Often times, marketers talk about tailoring products for certain consumer profiles that find maximum value in product attributes that others may not. In this case, inorganic bread can be a superior product upon closer examination of:

  1. goals of certain segments of consumers (health, taste, prestige, self-punishment, etc.)
  2. usage patterns (how often do you eat bread?)
  3. the chemicals factories pour into your processed bread

Consider my consumer profile. I am a single young professional who eats out sometimes and can last on a loaf of bread for one to two weeks.  I seek out quirky restaurants with high Yelp rating on the weekends and like to whip up a gourmet Chinese dinner a few days a week. If my stir-fry calls for regular “high sodium” soy sauce and ample amounts of “high fat” sesame oil, I am generous to include them in my meals.

Every time you buy a product, you should calculate the tradeoffs between its weaknesses and strengths to maximize what works best for your own usage. Therefore, it does not make sense that if you see an organic label on bread you should snatch it up immediately unless you are a health nut who does not value taste and shelf life.

My consumer profile would indicate that I value taste and shelf life over health. Inorganic bread trumps organic bread in shelf life anytime. A loaf of “When Pigs Fly” Organic Wheat Bread lasts for six days from the day it was packed (mold starts showing up once it gets close to the six day mark) whereas a loaf of “Dutch Country” Whole Wheat Bread lasts twice the amount of time and retains its taste more readily (from observation since the standard SELL BY dates are never indicative of food expiration). It is psychologically painful to see half a loaf of bread go to waste and this future pain is often overlooked upon time of purchase.

While there is no market research comparing general population taste opinions of organic versus inorganic bread, inorganic bread manufacturers have found ways to utilize food science technology to enhance processing of both the wheat itself and the breadmaking process to produce “ tastier” bread.  After all, customer retention is based on these companies being able to produce the most delicious bread. My opinion is that I have encountered numerous disappointments in the taste of organic bread, especially in texture. The majority come too dry or too hard. On a higher level, inorganic bread does not allow me to accomplish my consumption goals successfully.

Look at this:

You may argue that the insane number of chemicals in inorganic breads can be dangerous to one’s health.  I would be crazy to argue otherwise upon seeing this lab experiment in the shape of bread.

However, not all inorganic breads are made the same. Some use only a few preservatives that provide greater shelf life and taste. Science should not be feared just because you cannot read an ingredient’s name properly. Such biases against scientific food enhancers have been perpetuated by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver who proclaim famous heuristics like if you don’t know what the ingredient is in the nutrition label, don’t eat it.

However, many of these chemicals have been tested with the FDA (the reliability of the FDA is questioned at times but this is another story) and are known to be chemically inert (non-reactive with bodily processes) to any chemist. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about which chemicals to avoid and which are safe. Once again, you as the consumer should make the tradeoff between the nebulous health risks and very real gains from added preservatives and enhancers. For Jamie Oliver, he sees no tradeoff since the gains side of the equation is unrealistically missing.

Marketers at companies like Pepperidge farm (a famous inorganic bread company though they do offer organic options) can leverage the unique strengths of inorganic bread and make consumers aware of these tradeoffs instead of trying to minimize exposure of perceived unhealthy ingredients or copying an organic image without actually offering an organic product.

Next time you are perusing the bread section at a supermarket that offers inorganic and organic options, introspect on your own consumption behavior and make an informed purchase choice. Organic bread is good, but organic bread might not be good for you.

Culinary Tip:

for breakfast sandwiches involving “wet” spreads, buy soft, fluffy bread and eat immediately

for lunch and dinner sandwiches, buy drier breads so they can soak up the moisture of crisp greens, tomatoes and deli meats without becoming soggy.

Scripts– Hardwired to Order Sandwiches in Your Sleep

Welcome. This blog will start off with a series of articles related to one of the most iconic American foods– sandwiches. Although sandwiches have existed since the start of time, they were not officially given the name until 1726 (1). This is one of those semi-true but absolutely juicy tales that abounds in the history of food. Sandwiches were named after John Montague, earl of Sandwich, a hardcore gambler who had to use his right hand to play his cards and his left hand to eat. He would therefore request bread, cheese and meat together in what we now know as a sandwich.

Though fascinating, the post will not touch upon the origins of the sandwich. Instead, I will bring attention to the process of ordering a sandwich at a deli and the important psychological factors involved. I first moved to the United States four years ago from Taiwan. People always ask if I experienced culture shock, and this is the first incident that comes to mind.

Delis were new to me. Being a cosmopolitan city, Taipei had western style bakeries that sold sandwiches but always prepackaged (with some interesting ingredients which I will touch upon in a later post about sandwiches in the East). The prospect of ordering a sandwhich was horrifying to me, because Delis either have no menus showing the ingredients available or they do not address the sandwich creation process itself (take a look at Subway’s menu). Do I order my veggies first? What dressings are available?

Two problems were at hand from a psychological standpoint:

1)      Lack of knowledge in the sequence of the ordering process (you order your bread first, cheese and meats, veggies and then dressing in many cases)

2)      Lack of knowledge in the categories of foods that make up a sandwich (breads, meats, cheeses, veggies, dressing)

I avoided ordering sandwiches for a month and then decided to venture out of my comfort zone to order what the person in front of me ordered for another two months. There is a social anxiety that comes with being unable to fulfill a prescribed role in a situation where others can do so easily. Surprisingly, one of these roles is being the sandwich orderer. Asking “what breads are available?” and “what dressings are available?” are taboo questions at the deli. These questions are usually met with the awkward pause as the person behind the counter contemplates whether it is worth reciting the whole list of ingredients to you for every single category. While this is an anecdote from my personal life, it has been largely documented psychological literature that when people do not successfully prescribe to social norms and, in this case, “scripts”, negative social consequences like stigma and feelings of anxiety can arise.

The act of ordering a sandwich is what psychologists call a “behavioral script.” It is a socially learned sequence of behaviors and actions in a certain setting that becomes automatic to you. As an American going to your local Subway, you order your bread, meat, cheese, veggies and dressing without a second thought. You have learned through your culture to execute this script flawlessly, which involves all this:

Quite overwhelming! You are able to keep this in your head due to a lifetime of repetition and seeing others do the same.

Purchasing and eating certain foods in other cultures have their own scripts. Therefore, I sincerely believe that it is not only important when teaching foreign languages to focus on the linguistic aspects but also to expose students to various scripts that natives take for granted. This will allow foreign speakers to integrate better into new countries. A future post will lay out the script for the next time you are at a Taiwanese potsticker joint!

Picture courtesy of Tasted Menu Boston www.tastedmenu.com

Diagram created by Mark Lock

(1) taken from documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmnsUeCXAZw

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.