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.

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