The Ikea Effect

I bring you this post from Poäng.


My moving-to-New-York story is as cliché as they come: I hopped on a plane the day I graduated from college, landing at the only place in the city that suited my budget, at what Wikipedia describes as “long-term housing for drug addicts and those down on their luck.” (It’s now a chic boutique hotel. I, and the people who scratched on my door in the middle of the night, can assure you it was nothing of the sort in 1999.) I carried all my earthly possessions in two vessels: a worn-down backpack, and a chest of drawers. Not just any chest of drawers, mind you. This chest of drawers had been manufactured in cardboard, purchased at Tar-jay, and lovingly—let’s be generous and call it “refurbished,” shall we? I’d initially thought that dresser would be better off if I covered the cheap ersatz delftware-style print with a shade of burgundy reminiscent of caked blood; when it became clear I now had a blood-stained dresser made of cardboard with knockoff blue flowers clearly visible underneath, I spray-painted the entire thing with gold glitter, in a move I now see as crushingly optimistic but that at the time I considered savvy.

My friends made fun of me—as well they should have, the thing was hideous—but I loved it. Yes, I saw the pattern still peeking out through my paint job; sure, the coat of glitter paint never properly dried, leaving the whole thing literally tacky. But I’d put time and effort—woefully unskilled effort, but effort nonetheless—into it, and I’d be damned if I’d just throw that thing away after all that. It still functioned, after all, and it was just the right size to be nestled in my arms while I stood outside Newark airport with a backpack and a diploma trying to figure out what bus would take me to my flophouse.

That cardboard dresser was the first thing that came to mind when I heard of “the Ikea effect”: our tendency to overvalue fruits of our own labor. Participants in a 2011 study assembled Ikea items, then assigned them a market value; people believed their work should be valued at price points similar to those of items crafted by experts—and expected others to share their opinion. Now, unlike with the series of Billy bookcases that saw me through my 20s, I knew that my ugly little dresser was precious only to me, and was precious only because I’d made it precious, but the fact remained that I was unreasonably attached to it. (We parted ways only when, the following summer, the humidity made the still-sticky glitter paint so tacky that the cardboard drawers simply became too difficult to open.)

I wonder about how the Ikea effect plays out with beauty labor. It’s not an exact parallel; I’m far too self-conscious to leave the house with the hairstyle equivalent of a glitter-painted cardboard dresser perched atop my head, and I think that’s true of most of us. The standards of personal presentation are too strict to allow for unreasonable investments. But that said, I know I’ve become attached to certain forms of beauty labor well beyond their usefulness. Truth is, during my “no ’poo” days (which, even though in some ways was the opposite of labor, still required work of sorts) I sort of wanted to wash my hair well before I actually did. My hair didn’t look like I hadn’t washed it for nine months, but neither did it look clean, and while I never claimed that my hair looked the same as it did when I was shampooing regularly, I did say that it looked better. It didn’t. Now, it didn’t look worse either (I’m still with you in spirit, no-’pooers!); it was a separate-but-equal situation. But for me to have said that when I was invested in the idea of not shampooing my hair—which was less labor in the shower but more labor on a day-to-day basis, what with the hair powder and updos and whatnot—would have felt like admitting that the work I’d poured into the whole concept was for naught.

Most of my beauty labor leans toward the “invisible” sort: I don’t get particularly creative with my makeup, and I rarely do anything unique even with my nails. Still, once I adopt a particular point of beauty labor I’m loath to give it up. It’s like: I’ve decided that this is worth my time and energy, and I’ll be damned if I admit that maybe it’s not. If a product or bit of work doesn’t seem like it’s worth it (eye cream, I’m looking at you), I’ll quit it, but the difference doesn’t have to be big for me to keep up my investment in it. I’ve already budgeted for my retinol cream, so even though my half-face experiment showed that the difference is negligible, I’ll still keep on using it. (Perhaps this is more about sunk costs than the Ikea effect, though certainly the two are related.)

It’s crossed my mind that the Ikea effect might even be part of the larger reason most women wear makeup: The more labor we pour into our “product”—that is, ourselves—the more value we assign to it. I’m not so cynical as to believe that we think of ourselves as products that can be bought and sold; regardless, our culture certainly shapes women’s value as lying in our appearance, even if we don’t literally translate that into dollars. Put somewhat less cynically, the self-care of beauty work is part of how we physically enact our self-assigned value. There’s a reason one sign of depression and some other mental illnesses is neglected grooming: When your brain decides that you’re not as valuable as you once believed, you’re less likely to keep doing the labor that represents that value.

I’m curious: Do you see the Ikea effect represented in your own beauty labor? When you do beauty work that’s clearly labor-intensive—nail art, intricate hairstyles, that sort of thing—do you feel like you value your creation more than you would if you saw it on someone else? Does that value translate into monetary value?