To Give a Gift They'll Treasure, Go With "Some Assembly Required"

Shopping for gifts is hard. Sometimes it seems like the better you know someone, the harder it is to decide what to get them. If you're stuck, take some advice from psychology: People value an item more if they put it together themselves.

I Made Dis

In 2012, behavioral economist Dan Ariely, along with Tulane marketing professor Daniel Mochon and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, set out to study what they call the "IKEA effect": that is, the idea that people value something more when they put it together themselves.

For the study, they recruited 52 college students and had half assemble a plain black IKEA storage box. The other half got a fully assembled box and were asked to inspect it. Next, the researchers asked the volunteers to make a bid on the box, telling them that if their bid was equal to or above a random price they pulled out of a hat, they could pay the bid and get the box. As you might expect, those who built the box were willing to spend more — 63 percent more, to be exact — than those who got the box fully assembled.

In another experiment, they gave volunteers high-quality origami paper and instructions on how to fold either a crane or a frog. Once they were done with their creations, they were asked to bid on them in the same way previous volunteers bid on their IKEA pieces. Next, the researchers showed the pieces — along with some masterful pieces created by experienced origami artists — to strangers. Sure enough, the volunteers were willing to pay nearly five times as much for their own creations as strangers were, and almost as much as strangers were willing to pay for the expert creations. "Thus," the researchers write, "while the non-builders saw the amateurish creations as nearly worthless crumpled paper, our builders imbued their origami with value." Harsh, guys.

Work Reaps Rewards

Business owners have been aware of this tendency for a while. In response to a plateau in sales of cake mix in the 1950s, food manufacturers changed the recipe to require consumers to add an egg, thereby putting something of themselves into an overly simple task. Although the impact that had on cake-mix sales is questionable, the motivation holds up. You've probably heard of plenty of farms that let you pick your own pumpkin at Halloween and cut down your own tree at Christmas. From the hands-on customization of Build-a-Bear to the viral popularity of DIY frozen-yogurt shops, businesses know that people love the stuff they do themselves.

So gift givers, take note! But also be wary: There was one more phenomenon Ariely and his team noticed in their study. When people didn't finish assembling their box, that extra value they placed in the item vanished. That means if your gift is too hard to put together, the idea may backfire. So go ahead, buy your sweetie a new desk or give your kid a build-your-own-robot kit. Just maybe don't make grandma build a PC — unless your grandma is Shakuntala Devi.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast

For more about the weird ways your psychology impacts your wallet, check out Dan Ariely's book "Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations." The audiobook is free with a 30-day trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer December 11, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.