Why you love your Billy bookcase

Apologies if you’re getting fed up of these behavioural economics posts, inspired by Dan Ariely’s behavioural economics MOOC A Beginners Guide to Irrationality on Coursera. I personally find the subject fascinating and I truly believe it’s a must for all comms people to get their heads round this economics/social psychology/behaviour junction.

Anyhoo, this week we’re looking at motivation and the IKEA effect.

Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation

Even although mountain climbing can be a miserable experience at the time, people continue to repeat the experience. Why? Well they claim it’s about:

  • overcoming nature
  • a sense of achievement
  • a sense of accomplishment
  • competition
  • proving something to yourself

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But what would you do if you knew you couldn’t get to the top or if, once you came back down, you’d instantly forget everything about it.

Effort made in vain is de-motivating and the purpose of the activity contributes to its meaning. This applies as much to everyday work as it does to mountain climbing.

It turns out money is not the best motivator – people derive value from a wide range of sources.

The issue of meaning

We are motivated to do things that we find meaningful. Doing the same task over and over without a sense of progress can be the ultimate de-motivator. People understand the value of meaning but not the extent to which it matters. Not having meaning can choke the joy out of an activity you would otherwise have enjoyed.

Purpose and meaning are so important that they can be worth a substantial investment of time and money. An example of this is Google – they allow their employees to spend 20% of their time on other projects to make them feel more valuable.


Acknowledgement is just as important as meaning. It’s relatively easy to make people feel good about their work just by acknowledging their contribution. Simply ignoring people can be as demotivating as destroying their work. Dan proved this with a series of experiments where people’s work was either acknowledged, ignored or put through a shredder without being looked at.
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The IKEA effect

How does labour lead to love?

Our liking of something isn’t just judged by what it is but by how much effort we have put into it. The more effort, the more we like it. This even extends to our children – the effort we expend on our kids increases our love for them and blinds us to the perspective of others. Another example of this is customisation such as T-shirts – this is about more than individual preferences as the effort invested also increases the liking of the product. However, too much effort can have negative consequences so it’s important to strike the correct balance.

Dan first noticed this when he realised he was more attached to a self-built piece of IKEA furniture than other more expensive ready-built pieces. He has also carried out many experiments asking people to place values on Lego models they’ve made themselves and models mad by others.

The not-invented-here bias

Are we over-committed to our own ideas? Investing even a small amount of energy in a solution makes people like it much more. This has a plus and a down side:

  • plus – it results in more time and passion devoted to our own ideas
  • down – it hinders our ability to consider the ideas of others

Cognitive dissonance

This is the tension that results when there is a mismatch between our beliefs and our behaviours.

Dan’s example of this at work is Zappos. Instead of interviewing customer services people they train them for a week then offer $2000 not to take the job. Why? When we work harder for something we value it more therefore Zappos employees believe they must love working there because they gave up $2000 for the chance. Retaining happy and motivated employees and eliminating the rest helps maintain a quality customer service.

Next week it’s monetary stress, social stress and performance under the spotlight.


Tune of the week

Beat Mafia & Diaz Grimm – Motivation

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