How to Get People to do What You Want using the IKEA Effect

Updated to Business on June 28, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
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You’ve got to admit, we’re wired sort of funny. For example, do you have something in your home you’ve kept for no other reason than because you made it?

Maybe it’s a drawing, piece of pottery or hand-knitted sweater – not much value, but for some reason, every time you move, it comes with you.

It’s called the IKEA effect and in this post I’ll explain why it’s a game changer when it comes to human motivation.

In one of his many experiments studying our often-bizarre irrational behaviour, Duke University professor (not to mention TED talk super star and best-selling author), Dan Ariely with his colleagues, Michael I. Norton (Harvard Business School), and Daniel Mochon (Yale University) asked a group of students to build an IKEA desk.

You know the drill: rip open the plastic bag of odd looking screws, plastic plugs and allen keys, stare dumbly at the instructions until you spot the big ‘1’ with a circle around it, indicating the first two pieces you need to slot together, and then start building.

Some 60 minutes later, with a few failed starts and quiet swearing, voila! They had a desk.


And then something very interesting happened.

You see, what was once a flattened box of laminated particle board had become precious. Maybe not precious as in diamonds, baby pictures and love letters, but certainly worth much more than it was 60 minutes earlier.

Ariely and colleagues called this the “IKEA effect”. Very much related to the endowment effect, the IKEA effect is established because of perceived ownership: I built it, therefore it’s more valuable to me.

Now, let’s put those boxes in the recycling and look at your work as a leader, speaker, sales person or coach, shall we. Are you employing the IKEA effect?

Maybe it starts with a good question.

The Power of the Question

I think there’s an inherent challenge to being a coach – you’ve often heard it all before and are anxious to guide your client to the solution. Frankly, I’m terrible at this – in my rush to get to the punch line, I tend to give advice.

Not only that, I give advice only I could use. Two problems here:

  1. I haven’t employed the IKEA effect so they don’t own the solution.
  2. They might not have the same work ethic or motivation, in which case, my ‘brilliant’ solution becomes one more entry in their growing list of To-Do’s.

The trick, dear reader, is to get them to own the solution by flipping my ego on its inflated head, resisting the need to sound smart, and asking a smart question.

It’s coaching 101 all over again: turn their question into a question and nudge them to formulating their own solution, that fits their abilities and motivation. Once they answer, you can employ the double click technique to negotiate closer to their ultimate solution.

Rather than exhausting your list of savvy solutions, you nudge them to find their own. Smart.

You can also use the IKEA effect in your next speech.

Make your Speech Memorable

It’s great you invented sliced bread and know more than your audience about, well, everything. But, it won’t help them a damn.

In fact, I’d argue (actually I am right now) it’s delusional to think people will abandon their woeful paths simply because you told them to.

Sure, they might be motivated and dutifully recorded all your pithy quotes, maybe they even bought your book and waited in line to get their picture with you. But, they didn’t build the solution—they simply copied yours.

The good news is you can weave the IKEA effect into any speech and instantly get better results. Here’s how.

1. Ask open-ended questions.

A bit obvious – but it never fails. When a speaker asks the audience, for example, “What would you have to give up or change so your mornings are protected for more sales call?”

We can’t help ourselves – immediately we are creating solutions, individually crafted for our unique needs.

Of course, the speaker can suggest their own strategies, but the magic happens when delegates formulate their own first.

2. Peer-to-peer coaching.

It only takes a minute to instruct an audience how to use questions to coach their partner. Then one person starts with their challenge and their partner employs open-ended questions to help guide them to their solution.

Now you, the speaker, look brilliant: you have 200 people creating their own solutions with a partner who is nodding enthusiastically in support. Boom! You’re a genius and they did all the work.

3. Journalling

It’s fast to have an audience choose a preferred solution from a list you provided (like, having a room full of managers choosing from a list of ways to praise employees.) If you want to launch the IKEA effect it’s even better if they journal the solution. It works like this.

First you have to either present a list or have them brainstorm a large list of solutions. For example, with a small audience, I might have each table quickly create a list of ways to improve their team meetings. Next, I ask each person to record in their handouts one or two they can use. Finally I would ask them to pair up and share with a partner how this change will make a difference with their team.

My goal is to quickly move from random solutions they don’t own to one solution they not only own, they are arguing for it.

At the end of the day, it’s nice to be the smartest person in the room. But, if you want to truly impact people and guide them to long-term success, you have to let them pick up the allen key and create it on their own.

Photo Credit: ** RCB ** via Compfight cc