Ikea Effect: A Cognitive Bias Born From Labour of Love

Year of production: 2023

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings who, when presented with enough information and time for contemplation, can make good choices and judgements. Well, ha-ha, the joke’s on us, because we are not. In this series of short articles about our beautiful and flawed brains – more specifically about cognitive biases – we will look at five common cognitive biases that directly connect to media and information literacies (MILs). The foundation of MILs is knowing oneself and others, and what better time to remind ourselves of our biases than at the brink of elections! So hopefully next time we find ourselves in the middle of a heated online debate about political views or simply as targets of political campaigns, we will know better than to let our brains hijack our judgement through these cognitive shifts.

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which we assign greater value to something we have been involved in creating, to which we have devoted our care and time. The name, of course, refers to the well-known furniture manufacturer, which has built its entire business model around this shift. Why sell medium-to-low-quality stuff to people and have them be grumpy about it when you can make them assemble the affordable furniture themselves and through that action make the customers happy and proud, sitting on their “self-made” wonky chairs. The effect has been known for a long time but the relatively recent Ikea label seems to have stuck – it is a widely recognised global brand, the science seems whimsical and the connection is somewhat surprising and thus memorable.

Examples of this effect in action are plentiful: from various DIY products that require a lot of effort in assembly, painting, and tuning; to the sale of garden and agricultural products where customers are invited to pick their own produce and then pay for it; from why people who have renovated their own houses tend to anchor the selling price very high; to crowdsourcing or lending a helping hand in world cleanup efforts. Essentially, the strong emergence of this shift is even nice – people are seen as active co-creators rather than passive consumers.

How much would you pay for this magnificent clump of wrinkled paper?

Researchers have come up with clever yet simple studies to test this effect – one team of scientists got people to do origami and paid them for their effort, but then asked: ‘This origami crane you just made really belongs to us because we paid you for your time. But we’ll tell you what, we might be persuaded to sell it to you. Please write down the maximum amount of money that you would be willing to pay to take your origami creation home with you.’ The cunningness of their research design lies in the existence of another group – people who had not made anything with their hands but were similarly asked, ‘how much would you pay for these creations?’ The difference was vast, the makers truly believed in the quality and aesthetics of their crooked cranes, willing to pay five times as much as the ‘buyers’.
The Ikea effect is a cognitive bias that makes us value effort – if something is too easy, it is not perceived as meaningful and valuable. We are creative creatures and need some challenges, a sense of accomplishment, figuring difficult things out, finding the easter egg!

Participatory media kicks the Ikea effect into gear

Why am I talking about this here? The foundation of media and information competence is self-awareness – understanding how our brains and perceptions work. Because if we don’t, others can use these flaws against us, whether it be to get elected to a position of power or manipulate us into buying stuff we do not need, or make us scared and confused and thus, easily mouldable. Here’s an example from the field of media literacies: If I have been involved in creating and strengthening a certain online group, I may view the broader impact of that group, the practices that spread within it, and its values through somewhat rose-tinted glasses (e.g., not noticing the destructiveness of that group).

Or, for example, if I have provided ideas for writing a journalistic story, sources, or hidden perspectives, I would appreciate that publication and article more highly. Online platforms and social media often feature user-generated content, such as reviews, ratings, and comments. Users may assign greater credibility and value to content created by peers or fellow users because they feel a sense of participation in the platform. Contemporary participatory culture gives us ample opportunities to let the Ikea effect take off.


Picture of Maria Murumaa-Mengel
Maria Murumaa-Mengel, PhD

Maria Murumaa-Mengel (PhD in Media and Communication) is currently working as an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, and as a member of the Baltic Engagement Centre for Combating Information Disorders. She is involved in research primarily focusing on young people’s use (and non-use, ‘going off the grid’) of social media, different literacies (e.g. digital, MIL, social media, porn), and various online risks (e.g. gendered online hate, online shaming, online child sexual abuse and grooming). Maria Murumaa-Mengel’s main strengths lie in teaching and supervising – she is the recipient of the 2020 Estonian National Award for the Teacher of the Year and has supervised several award-winning theses. In regard to digital media literacies, she is a firm believer in the ‘know thyself’ ground rule – it all starts with knowing how we as people process information in the increasingly mediatised and datafied world.