The Joy of (Even Thinking We’re) Making Something

By Dan Ariely
Duke Fuqua School of Business, Irrational Labs

August 30, 2018

Editor's Note: As Labor Day approaches, let’s think about work and how to get more out of it, for ourselves, our colleagues and our organizations. This excerpt from Dan Ariely’s book, “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations,” is a great way to get the gears turning on what’s next. Why is it so great for thinking about work? Because it’s not explicitly about work. Huh? You’ll see …

Full disclosure 1: It’s a slow work week, so I know you have time to read this longer-than-usual piece from a shorter-than-normal book. No excuses.

Full disclosure 2: You like this? Dan has written many great books, including this one with me. Check him out.

On our deep attachment to our own ideas and creations  

While reducing the harmful elements on motivation should be our first step, we also need to look closely at the positive side of motivation and think of ways to increase it. By understanding the building blocks of motivation, we can structure both our workplaces and our personal lives in ways that will make us more productive, more fulfilled and happier.  

But how can we increase motivation? To answer this question, let’s think again about building something — this time, not a piece of software or a Bionicle, but a piece of IKEA furniture. IKEA came up with a brilliantly diabolical idea: the company would offer boxes of Bionicle-like furniture parts and make customers assemble the pieces by themselves, with only the help of their bitterly impossible-to-understand instructions.  

By understanding the building blocks of motivation, we can structure both our workplaces and our personal lives in ways that will make us more productive, more fulfilled, and happier.  

I like the clean, simple design of IKEA furniture when I see it in their showrooms. But long ago, I found that assembling a piece of IKEA furniture — in my case, a chest of drawers for my kids’ toys — demands a surprising amount of time and effort. I still remember how confused I was by the instructions that came with the chest. Some parts seemed to be missing. I put some pieces together the wrong way more than once. Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed the process. But when I finally finished building the piece, I experienced a somewhat odd and unexpected sense of satisfaction. I stood back looking at the chest and smiled with pride at having completed the job. Over the years, I’ve noticed that I look at that chest of drawers more often, and more fondly, than any other piece of furniture in my house.  

My colleagues Mike Norton (a professor at Harvard University), Daniel Mochon (a professor at Tulane University) and I described the general over-fondness we have for stuff we’ve made ourselves as the “IKEA effect.” And while IKEA inspired our original research, IKEA was hardly the first to understand the value of self-assembly.  

Consider the history of cake mixes. Back in the 1940s, when most women worked at home, a company called P. Duff and Sons introduced boxed cake mixes. The mixes were almost ready-made; housewives had only to add water, stir up the mix in a bowl, pour the batter into a cake pan, bake it at 350 degrees for half an hour, and voilà! They had a tasty dessert to serve to their family and friends. But surprisingly, these mixes didn’t sell well. The reason had nothing to do with the taste. It had to do with the complexity of the process — but not in the way we usually think about complexity.  

Duff discovered that the ’40s-era housewives felt that the just-add-water-cakes were a shade shy of buying ready-made from a store. Sure, the cakes emerged warm from the oven and the mix saved time, but the completed cakes did not feel like the housewives’ own creations. There was simply too little effort involved to confer a sense of creation and meaningful ownership.  

To solve this problem, the company took the eggs and milk powder out of the mix and put the new, harder-to-use mix on supermarket shelves. This time, when the housewives added fresh eggs, oil and real milk, they felt like they’d participated in the making and were much happier with the end product. When someone told them, “What a delicious cake you made!” they could smile and respond: “It’s an ancient family recipe.” They didn’t just accept the compliment; they believed they deserved it.  

The Duff cake mix story offers a simple and clear example of the power of effort and ownership and how it relates to motivation. It shows that when we work harder and spend a bit more time and effort, we feel a greater sense of ownership and thus enjoy more the fruits of our efforts.  

My Beautiful Creature 

To examine the “IKEA effect” in a more controlled, experimental way, Daniel, Mike and I asked participants to work for us by making some origami creations in exchange for an hourly wage. We equipped them with colored paper and written instructions for creating paper cranes and frogs, and off they went. 

Now, folding a piece of paper into an elegant creation is harder than it looks. And since these participants were all origami novices, none of their creations were terribly satisfying as works of art.

When the time of their temporary employment was up, we told them: "Look, 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 in order to take your origami creation home with you.”  

We called these people “builders,” and we contrasted their enthusiasm for their origami creatures as measured by their willingness to pay for them with that of a more objective group we called “buyers.” Buyers were people who had not made any origami; they simply evaluated the builders’ creations and indicated how much they would be willing to pay for them. It turned out that the builders were willing to pay five times more for their handmade creations than the buyers were.  

We are strongly motivated by identity, the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment and feeling of creation. 

Now, imagine that you are one of these origami builders imbued with such a deep affection and overvaluation for your work. Do you recognize that other people don’t see your lovely creation in the same way that you do? Or do you mistakenly think that everyone shares your appreciation?  

Before answering this question, consider toddlers. Little kids have an egocentric perspective; they believe that when they close their eyes and can’t see other people, other people can’t see them. As children grow older, they outgrow that kind of egocentric bias. But do we ever get rid of it completely? We don’t!  

We found that the egocentric bias is also alive and well in adults. Love for one’s handiwork is indeed blind. Our builders not only overvalued their own creations, they also erroneously believed other people would love their origami art as much as they did.  

But wait, there’s more. In the “impossible” version of this experiment, we made the origami-folding task more complex by eliminating some of the most crucial details of the instructions. The standard set of instructions for origami includes arrows and arcs that tell the user what to fold and in which direction. The usual instructions also include a legend that tells the user how to interpret these arrows and arcs. In this more difficult version, we eliminated the legend, making the instructions useless and the whole process much harder. This time, our participants’ creations were even uglier. As a consequence, buyers were willing to pay even less for the origami, but such objectivity was lost on the builders. In this “impossible” version, the builders valued their creations even more than when they had been given clear instructions, because they put extra effort into making them. Just as my working hard on the IKEA chest of drawers increased my affection for the damned thing, our origami experiments showed that the more effort people expend, the more they seem to care about their creations. 


(credit: Matt R. Trower) 

It is important to note that our experiments with Bionicles, paper shredding, and origami weren’t connected in any way to one of the main drivers of motivation — our larger sense of identity. These tasks weren’t life callings integral to participants’ sense of themselves. Yet our participants’ behavior clearly revealed that we are strongly motivated by identity, the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment and feeling of creation. The finding that these needs played such large roles in our lab experiments suggests to me that the same thing happens in real-world work environments — but in spades. If, for example, you’re a software engineer who has spent two years of your life working on a project, your identity is likely to be many times more powerfully connected to your creation than our participants’ identities were to Bionicles or paper frogs.  

Zappos, as we mentioned earlier, is a company that shows deep appreciation for the forces and complexity of motivation. As a place that wants very much to attract and keep talent, it focuses hard on employees as individuals and does everything it can to make people feel connected and happy. If someone is struggling with anything from weight loss to learning to write better, he or she can work with a coach. The facility in Las Vegas is designed to encourage connections and “collisions” so that as employees get up from their desks and walk around, they meet and exchange ideas. Employees are encouraged to do anything they can to wow customers; nobody takes customer service calls using a phone script. People are paid extra for learning new ideas and presenting what they learn to others. In hallways, you can find makeshift bowling alleys; employees wear costumes to work. One of Zappos’ core values is “Create fun and a little weirdness.” Zappos understands that we are all toddlers at heart, driven by play and a dash of individuality. All of these things make Zappos one of the “best companies to work for” according to Fortune magazine.  

The Creating Consumer

It’s easy to see how creators can garner a strong connection and a sense of identity and meaning from their accomplishments. It’s also easy to see how this research applies to artists, craftspeople and hobbyists. But what about the stuff we personalize as consumers? Henry Ford reportedly said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Those days are long gone. Now we can pick not only the color of our cars but the interior layout, the number of cup holders, the design of the wheel rims, and more. If you buy a pair of shoes online from Nike, you can customize the colors of the shoes, laces and linings. A website called Chocomize lets you create your own special candy. M&M’s lets you pick your color mix. At Zazzle, you can customize garments and cards to make them uniquely yours. Crowdfunding platforms now allow us to play roles in all kinds of creative projects, from art and fashion to film, games, technology and more.  

Initially, this desire to customize seems to be about preferences — we choose red over purple because we like red more. But the reality is that customization has additional benefits. By choosing red, we make the product a little more our own. And every time we choose a new color for our shoes, we personalize them even more. The more effort we put into the design, the more likely we are to enjoy the end product.  

The more effort we put into the design, the more likely we are to enjoy the end product. 

So just think: 3-D printing is developing so quickly that one day, as consumers, we will soon not just design but also manufacture all kinds of products, from picture frames to clothing to furniture and beyond. Regardless of what these objects might end up looking like, they will be much more meaningful to us than anything someone else has made because they will have the stamp of our own effort, design, care and unique identity.  

Home, Sweat Home

What kind of creation could be more customized and personal than a home? The intimacy and care with which we design our living spaces make home ownership an especially keen demonstration of the motivational power of creation. When I worked at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my wife, Sumi, and I owned a house close to the university. We loved the house and went to a great deal of inconvenience and expense to customize it. We renovated rooms, removed walls and enlarged windows. After it was done (to the extent that renovations are ever done), we marveled at the open, airy feeling we’d created.  

A few years later, when we moved to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, we had to sell the Cambridge house. It sat on the market for a disturbingly long time. After several months, our real estate agent point out that most people didn’t want to live with an open floor plan and recommended that we reinstall a few walls to make the space more closed and sectional. We were certain that she was wrong. Who would not appreciate the beauty of our open floor plan? Who would pointed out that most people didn’t want to live with an open floor plan and recommended that we reinstall a few walls to make the space more closed and sectional? So we resisted her suggestion for a while.  

Eventually, we decided to follow her advice. And as soon as we added walls and closed up some rooms, a buyer snatched it up.  The lesson: Just like the origami-builders, Sumi and I too have an egocentric bias; our taste is most likely just our taste, and not everyone shares it, but it is hard for us to truly appreciate and understand this.  

Here’s another fun ownership story from the annals of our Cambridge home-improvement efforts. Over the years, our renovations included many additional projects, including insulating the attic, installing a better heating system, renovating a bathroom, and most excitingly, installing a sauna in the basement. The whole process involved all the typical delights that accompany such projects: broken promises, delays, unexpected surprises that ended up costing us more than the contractor’s initial estimates, changes to the original plans that also ended up boosting the price, and so on. It was a long series of one annoyance after another (that we tried hard to frame as useful life lessons).  

In general, the contractor didn’t display much interest in installing plumbing, heating or renovating the bathroom. One pleasant surprise, however, had to do with the construction of the new sauna. One evening, the contractor asked me to join him in the basement. “Look at this!” he said with immense pride. “We cut the wood for the walls and the benches this way.” He showed me the fine grain of the wood cut, how the screws were elegantly bolted below the surface of the wood, the joining of the seams, and so on. I had to confess that although I had been irritated with him on many other levels, he created a wonderful sauna. In that project was evidence that he had a tremendous eye for detail.  

His craftsmanship and creativity… was much more valuable in his own eyes than all the other work he had done 

His unusual level of artisan’s pride made me wonder about the joy he felt in creating a completely new, standalone and beautiful thing. It seemed that from his perspective, all the other aspects of the renovation were just fix-it jobs to be done and only incremental improvements. There was little that was creative or new about them. Moreover, any level of renovation was not even close to transforming the old thing into a perfect thing. The new windows sat in the old frames. The new heating system couldn’t fit precisely in the old house. The renovated bathroom still maintained some of the old elements, including the uneven floor — which meant that the contractor could never feel that this was “his” bathroom. His creation. And without this feeling there was nothing in these everyday upgrades to encourage his best workmanship. But the contractor’s gorgeous sauna was a complete objet d’art that he had taken a great deal of care to create from scratch. I suspect that for him, it stood as a tribute to his craftsmanship and creativity and was much more valuable in his own eyes than all the other work he had done. 

Kids and Ideas

This attachment to one’s own “custom” creation extends not only to physical things but also to ideas. This attachment begins surprisingly early. In an interesting set of experiments by Vivian Li, Alex Shaw and Kristina Olson, 4-year-olds were presented with two identical sets of craft materials—five paper shapes and two cotton balls that could be glued together to make a design on a piece of construction paper. The experimenters told the children to think of an idea for a picture they could create using these materials and then to tell the experimenter exactly how to put all the pieces together.  

Next, the children and the experimenter switched roles. The experimenter would think of an idea and tell the child where exactly to place the shapes. The children could pick their favorite picture and take it home. Which do you think that the kids preferred? The one that was the result of their idea or the one that was the result of their physical labor? If you, at your current age, were deciding, which one would you prefer?  

By a pretty wide margin, the children picked the picture that was the outcome of their own idea, not the one where they provided the physical labor.  

In another experiment, this time involving 5-year-olds, researchers asked each child to dream up a story (for example, “Make up a story about a dragon and a little boy”). After the child invented the story, another adult entered the room, and the experimenter repeated the child’s story by saying, “Tommy just told me the best story ... !” In the “no-credit” condition, the experimenter told the other adult, “ I have the best story ... !” In this case, the children vociferously objected, saying, “That was my story!”  

What all of this means is that by a very young age, we already care about our ideas and are attached to them.  

The Importance of Identity

Now, here is the question. If a simple task like making a Bionicle creature or circling letter pairs on a page can become more appealing by simply adding someone else’s acknowledgment, and if people love their horrible origami creatures even more when they put more effort into them, how much more are we motivated to care about projects when we have truly invested all our heart, mind and soul into them, as the Seattle engineers had done?  

To think about this question, consider the greatest customization project of all — raising our own kids. Sumi and I are the parents of two incredibly adorable, intelligent, beautiful and talented children (if we do say so ourselves) whom we love more than we ever imagined possible. Like all doting parents, we have spent endless sleepless nights and seen many a sunrise from the wrong side of the morning. We have changed our kids’ diapers; succored them through sickness; dealt with their temper tantrums; splashed with them in rivers and oceans; put them to bed; fed them; driven them to school; helped them with homework; attended their soccer games, school performances and countless birthday parties; placed Band-Aids on their skinned knees; and put money into their college funds. These labors of parenting are often challenging and sometimes unpleasant, but we are motivated to do them because of our enormous personal investment in our kids. When we look into their eyes and hear their laughter, we see purer and more adorable versions of ourselves. In short, we’re heavily invested in our children in all kinds of ways — emotionally, financially and with a deep sense of legacy that inherently extends beyond our life spans.  

With this in mind, let’s think for a few moments about kids within the context of the origami experiment. Say you are a parent who, like us, is highly invested in your own two incredibly adorable, intelligent and talented children. For the sake of argument, let’s say you find yourself in some kind of The Twilight Zone–style science fiction world where you take them to a park one day. In this parallel universe, another person plays with them for a few hours, is enchanted with them, and asks you, with all middle-class American earnestness, “Are your kids for sale?” She promises that they will have a good home and will be well cared for. What purchase price would you quote her?  

In this alternate universe, most people would state a very, very high price (unless, of course, the kids in question are teenagers). But what if the situation were slightly different? What if you did not have any children, and you went to the park and met two wonderful kids who were very much like the ones you have in reality. You play with them for a few hours. As evening approaches and you get ready to say goodbye, the mother of the two children sidles up to you and says, “Wow! You have such a good connection with those kids! They are for sale. Are you interested?” How much would you offer her? (My guess is not much.)  

This small thought experiment suggests that we think about our children as priceless, not just because we love them so much but because they are also ours. Raising kids is pretty much a DIY job. We put enormous amounts of effort into them, investing far more than a software engineer working for two years on a big project. The process is time-consuming and complex. Even if there were an instruction manual, it would doubtless be much less accurate than anything from IKEA, and even if it were clearly written, it would take a few lifetimes to read and understand.  

We think about our children as priceless, not just because we love them so much but because they are also ours. 

The enormous effort we pour into our children also gives us meaning and connection, and it makes us think about them as the unique creatures they are. Certainly, it takes a lot of time and energy to play with them, help them with their homework, and the rest, just as it does to create a beautiful home or a beautiful piece of work; but the work itself rewards us, and we remember it with much affection later in our lives.  

Thinking of our kids in this way can help us better understand the value that people place on their simple Bionicle creations or the value that Sumi and I projected onto our Cambridge house. We become more invested as we pour effort into different activities, and with it experience greater love for what we have created — our creations become part of ourselves and our identities. As an added bonus, we are all also largely blinded by our egocentric bias; we just don’t seem to recognize that the love for the outcome of our own efforts is limited to us alone.  

• • • 

The same basic lessons of meaningful engagement and our underappreciation for its role in our lives, also apply to many other aspects of our lives—which is why we often end up shying away from the more effortful and challenging experiences. If we have the money, we hire people to clean our houses, take care of our yards, or set up our Wi-Fi systems to avoid being bothered by these common annoyances. But think about the long-term joy we miss out on when we don’t engage in such tasks. Could it be that when we trade off annoyance for more efficient task completion that we end up accomplishing more but at the cost of becoming more alienated from our work, the food we eat, our gardens, our homes and even our social lives? 

• • • 

The lesson here is that a little sweat equity pays us back in meaning — and that is a high return.

By Dan Ariely
Duke Fuqua School of Business, Irrational Labs

Subscribe

Get the latest behavioral
science insights.