I watched a very excellent TED talk by Dan Ariely a while ago. It was full of great stats and stories about how we value our work, resulting from his very serious research using origami cranes and frogs (truly…). Really interesting stuff, worth a look. He is also very entertaining, which is always a bonus when it comes to talking about very serious research.

The thing that hit home for me was the bit about the IKEA effect. (Mercifully, this did not involve online demos using allen keys and white particleboard, though we did see some of the origami frogs…). It turns out that we (over) value work into which we have put blood, sweat and tears, even when it’s flawed – think that lopsided table, or the (my) IKEA bookcase where the back panel is upside down and back to front.

In the writing world, this is linked to the aphorism known as ‘murder your darlings’, the need to cull precisely those phrases – or whole chunks – of your writing that you have fallen in love with. You know, that brilliant turn of phrase, or that screamingly clever little paragraph. My thinking about this has long been that it’s because they make the rest of your writing look pretty average, and also they are all about you (and your extraordinary talent) rather than the story you are supposed to be telling. I guess Dan Ariely might gently point out that it may also be necessary to murder your darlings because they are not actually quite as brilliant as you believe. Sobering thought.

More business-y examples of the IKEA effect might include the totally gorgeous and cool Powerpoint slides you created to wow the boss, or the exceptionally brilliant report you slaved over for days and days, or that truly great idea you had about marketing…

A spinoff from this research is apparently a tendency to overvalue our internal corporate solutions, and to undervalue an external consultant’s views or suggested solutions to a problem.

I love the idea of the IKEA effect, and I can quite see its application to my world. But I want to have a chat to Dan Ariely about one thing that seems to run counter to his research.

It’s this: Some people have a tendency to be harshly critical of their own work (never me, of course…).  This can lead to perfectionism and never being satisfied that a piece of work is finished, or good enough to be sent into the world. Equally, we may overvalue the words of ‘experts’ or others in our lives, and assume that almost anyone knows better than we do.

For me, all this also links into the inner critic, a pesky little devil I have frequently written about. You know, that voice that speaks inside your head, telling you that your work is awful, or that everyone will laugh at your great idea, or that Susie is always better at this stuff than you are, so what’s the point…

So, maybe some of us lean towards the IKEA effect, and others go the other way? Or maybe we are seduced by our own work in areas where we have some confidence, and subject to attacks by the inner critic when we try something new, or which we really care about? Or, are Americans more prone to overvalue their own work and Aussies to underplay? I’m not sure, but it’s intriguing stuff.

What do you think?

Joanna Maxwell


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