Wednesday, March 6, 2013

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 we 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?

19 comments:

  1. This is very interesting. I almost never wear makeup (I'm 33), and I never really have in any substantial way (and I've definitely never used powder/base/foundation etc.). But I both read books and swim/yoga/cycle quite voraciously, and I put tremendous value on these activities. They reflect my "self" very much (for example, I'm always quick to point out, in true book snob fashion, that I don't read junk books). I do think I am a "high-value" person, in part because I put so much effort into being knowledgeable and thoughtful and articulate and so on, but I am also extremely aware that my particular brand of high value is not particularly highly valued by the society I live in.

    I guess this is why I actually feel irritated by hyper-conformity to patriarchal appearance standards- because I'm perfectly aware that women who conform get rewards and may be "highly valued" (however fleetingly), whereas my choices mean that I am valued by very few people outside myself. (And so thus I wish more women would buck the system and then we could actually dismantle it).

    But at any rate, your insight definitely is an interesting framework for trying to understand why women can become sooooooo invested in patriarchal beauty labor. It does strike me as another piece of the puzzle.

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    1. OMG, you took the words right out of my mouth, Carmen! Now you know there is at least one more woman bucking the system.

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    2. That is actually great to know, Ali! :)

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    3. Carmen, it's funny because my focus here is so directed toward appearance that I actually hadn't thought of the ways that the things I actually expend labor on bring value to my life, which is really what I'm after here! I'd say that for the most part, my labor does bring value--in fact, that turns out to be a nice guideline when I find myself putting a lot of time/effort into something, sort of asking myself what the actual return is going to be.

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  2. I think it's not just labor, maybe not even primarily labor, but cost -- hence you see women convincing themselves their $30 lipstick is noticably better to everyone than a $5 lipstick. Otherwise you feel guilty for indulging, and duped.

    Personally I'd almost always rather spend money on a product that devote time to something complicated and labor-intensive. I like putting on makeup but HATE doing stuff with my hair.

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    1. The cost thing is absolutely true. I sometimes fall for it, as with my ridiculously priced primer that I love, and other times I feel like I'm "getting away with" something if I call bullshit on a pricey product--or, for that matter, labor-intensive beauty work that really doesn't do jack to add value to my life. A beauty editor friend of mine pointed out that the placebo effect with most of this stuff is actually all you can be after with so many beauty products--if the $30 lipstick makes you feel like a saucy mama, you're going to act like a saucy mama even though it looks the same as a $5 lipstick. So it actually does increase in value, in a way.

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  3. To some extent, yes. I so rarely do anything with my hair or make-up that when I do I always hope for compliments (well, at least from my husband).

    Ironically, when it comes to clothes, though, I do put in serious effort simply because I have to due to my body shape. Yet in terms of clothes I don't feel the need to be complimented as much. Maybe in part because I know what I did works for me (at least to the extent that I'm happy with it) whereas when it comes to hair/make-up I'm much more unsure of the results.

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    1. Interesting--I hadn't considered the triangulated relationship between effort, self-valuation of labor, and *value from others* (as with compliments). I actually don't usually like my *labor* complimented per se, because I like to operate under the illusion that I don't really do much beauty labor. It's not true in the least, mind you! But it sort of breaks that illusion, even when I know full well that the intent is positive (and I don't get cranky about it or anything, it's just that I notice that I take another meaning from what's intended).

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  4. Do you have a picture of that dresser anywhere?


    No matter how I try to cut back, my grooming time and effort seem to stay they same: if I stop shaving my legs, I start shaving under my eyebrows. If I wear 50% less makeup, I work harder on my hair.

    Beauty labor doesn't have to be visible or significant to give me that I-am-better-now feeling/Ikea Effect. Slathering on lotion makes me feel "more valuable," even if no one can see my skin.

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    1. You know, I went through my photo box to see if there was a stray picture of it somewhere, but alas! (This was pre-digital.)


      And YES re: expendable labor. It always takes me the same amount of time to get ready even when I skip a bunch of stuff (unless I'm really rushing)--I think it's because a good deal of the impetus for me to have my "beauty regimen" is that it centers me, so it's like a part of me knows that I need X amount of time and will damn well take it!

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  5. I do think there is a value effect, and that it goes in both directions. I have a hard time 'investing' in my appearance when I'm working at home (I'm a freelancer now, so how can I justify lipgloss?). Social awareness and environmentalism feeds into it too (there are children starving worldwide and plastics killing marine life, so why bother with body lotion in a wasteful container).

    I've never felt like I "have" to put on makeup to be seen, but I know I feel more prepared for conversation, maybe even feel more interesting, if I have on interesting clothes and my hair is styled. I still struggle with feeling that way (e.g. reading Carmen's comment, my first thought was to note that I read tooooo... and maybe I shouldn't still want to buy another eyeshadow one day).

    Rebekah Jaunty, I agree!

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    1. Hi Tiffany-

      Just wanted to say that I didn't mean to imply that women who wear makeup don't read! Just that I could never, ever spend as much time reading, swimming, and doing yoga as I do if I spent time on beauty labor (beyond "I'm clean", which is what I do). So, for me, I've made a deliberate choice to eschew beauty labor, though I still think I have value because of these other things that I do. But I know I'm less valued for it (by most others), and it does annoy me. But I'm really quite happy, so! (And now I'm rambling).

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    2. Tiffany, that's interesting in how shifting priorities in other areas of your life reflects upon ways you do--or don't--value beauty labor. On days when I work from home (welcome to the freelance world, btw!), I don't do anything beyond moisturize, and I'd thought of that as a reflection of the reasons I wear makeup. But it's also a reflection of values--I value the effect I get from other people with my beauty labor, and when left on my own I value my time/sleep more. And sure enough, there are times when I'm home alone but want to "play" with my makeup (and do) because in the moment, that's what I value more. Hmmm....



      Carmen, I wonder if there's a sort of different valuation scale for women who don't appear to put forth much beauty labor. Like, a person who values their own beauty labor highly might indeed not value you as much at first glance--but another who performs beauty labor but resents it might value you more at first glance for the same thing. Have you noticed a difference in the way people treat you based on *their* beauty labor? (I find that most of my female friends are roughly in the same effort-expenditure camp as I am--very few totally bare-faced friends, but very few with high-maintenance routines either.)

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  6. I was going to compliment you for the insight in the post but then got absorbed in the fascinating conversation in the comments. There is so much human psychology going on in our decisions of how to present ourselves. Since most of that is hidden, bringing it to the surface is enlightening. And fun to learn.

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    1. I love it when a good conversation gets going here! Because that's just it--there's so much beneath the surface.

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