Why code you write yourself tastes better

inspiration quote
Seedlings sprouting


When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. ~Emerson

It’s really satisfying to look at the code for a site or application you’ve been working on for months. Like Emerson with his garden, you’ve tended it, weeded out the bad stuff, and watched it grow as your project progressed. Why is making something yourself so rewarding?

Psychologists have found that people appreciate things they’ve made more than things that come ready-made. They have dubbed this tendency the IKEA effect, after the Swedish mega-store whose products require assembly. In a series of experiments, researchers had people either put together one of several types of objects (e.g., origami frogs, IKEA storage boxes, small Lego sets) or merely inspect an identical, but already completed object. When the two groups reported how much they’d be willing to pay to take the object home, the makers’ bids were about double those of the inspectors. Putting an object together makes it more valuable to maker.

“Interesting,” you say, “but I’m not the do-it-yourself type.” As it turns out, how much of a DIYer a person is doesn’t matter; even people who rated themselves as low on DIY-ness were willing to pay more for an object they’d put together than for one that was pre-assembled. In fact, the people who folded the origami frogs were willing to pay as much for them as outside observers were willing to pay for (much more attractive) paper frogs folded by experienced origami artists.

What is it about making something yourself that causes you to value it more? The researchers who did this series of experiments speculate that several things contribute to the IKEA effect. One is that successfully completing a task produces positive feelings. Another is that spending time building something leads you to think more about its positive points. Finally, the finished product is essentially an indicator of competence—building this object required effort and ability, you built it, and by doing so, you’ve demonstrated your capability. One or more of these factors results in us really appreciating the things we’ve made.

Getting back to web development, though the researchers didn’t test it specifically, it’s reasonable to believe that the good feeling you get from doing things yourself is just as applicable to coding your own websites/apps as it is to assembling your own furniture or growing your own food.

Take our intro HTML/CSS class for example. It covers the basics, like what a tag is, how to make links, how to use images, different kinds of positioning, etc. At this stage, the webpages that students produce are the digital equivalent of kindergarten finger-painting—only the maker (and perhaps her immediate loved ones) will ever see them, much less celebrate them. Yet, as students make boxes and pictures appear in the browser for the first time, their excitement is obvious. These women are discovering the tools with which they will be able to create things on the web. They are taking the leap from being consumers of the internet to having the knowledge to be creators in the online world.

Norton, M., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2011). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology. DOI:10.1016/j.jcps.2011.08.002

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