I'm a big fan of Dan Ariely; his books and research have revealed many interesting and paradoxical aspects of human behavior. One of my favorite findings is called the Ikea Effect. It's quite simple: we overvalue our own creations. We will love and value furniture we assemble over a better-constructed superior piece of furniture built by someone else.
The Ikea Effect has old roots, dating back to when Betty Crocker's cake mixes were struggling to sell. Sales were stagnant even though the cakes were absurdly easy to make; you just add water! Furthermore, people consistently reported the cakes to be of a very high quality. People loved eating the cakes, but they wouldn't buy them and they certainly wouldn't serve them. Along came the Egg Theory. Betty Crocker changed the ingredients, now requiring milk and an egg. Sales exploded. People bought, made, served, and loved the cakes because they could call the cake their own creation.
I have read, and watched, Dan Ariely talk about the Ikea Effect at a high level several times, but I have never dug deeper into the underlying research and experiments. Thanks to the Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior course, free on Coursera, I now have this opportunity. I found something remarkable and surprising. There are experiments designed to examine the role that self-confidence and competency has on the Ikea Effect. In a nutshell, confident people are less attracted to Some Assembly Required products and subsequently more immune to the Ikea Effect.
Participants were assigned to solve either easy or hard math problems. Those who struggled through difficult math problems had their self-image damaged. After this struggle they were eager to build something. In a follow-up experiment, some participants were asked to identify and rank their values and write an essay about the importance of a particular value and how it has helped them in life. These participants who went through this self-affirmation exercise had the Ikea Effect nullified. The self-affirmation exercise allowed them to evaluate and judge their creation realistically. Those who didn't self-affirm fell in line with their products, and proceeded to overvalue their creations, in line with the Ikea Effect.
I used to laugh at Al Franken's portrayal of Stuart Smalley performing his self-affirmations, but maybe this isn't so ridiculous. If the Ikea Effect experiments show that perception is malleable and tied to our confidence, and that our confidence can be restored by self-affirmation exercises, then there is good reason to self-affirm before we evaluate anything. This isn't to say that self-affirmations aren't awkward, but that feeling of awkwardness is from how we self-affirm and not the activity itself.
But what does this say about me?
As I read this research I couldn't help but notice how much I love Some Assembly Required projects. I certainly love Lego, also. Is this due to some underlying competency fear? I have no idea, but I do know that my feelings of confidence are extremely domain specific. As the math experiment shows, if we worry about our competency in any area we seek out resolution in other areas. I've been practicing yoga regularly for a year now, and still feel like a complete beginner. That feeling isn't likely to go away soon, no matter how strong my self-affirmations. Could it be that learning new skills creates a cycle where I'm always looking to build something? Is this perpetual novice state harming my ability to objectively evaluate the quality and merit of other ideas?
Working in the high-paced tech environment is difficult. New ideas, products and techniques arise almost daily. Am I able to judge them correctly? When I'm feeling down, do I have a tendency to want to reinvent the wheel? And absolutely worse: Do I fail to value people correctly based on my own transient feelings of competency?
We should absolutely work with people that cover our weaknesses so we may focus on what we're good at and what energizes us. If we're so caught up in our own insecurities, we can not only fail to identify these partners but also fail to build a positive working relationship. I don't know if self-evaluation can help in this situation, but I know I'm going to try.
Take a moment, get to know yourself and your values. It will help you appreciate the value in all things.