Ask Ariely: On Rigorous Renovation, Contagious Corruption, and Precarious Productivity

July 3, 2021 BY Dan Ariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Dear Dan,

My partner and I decided to do a DIY renovation of our kitchen cabinets. We spent many hours at the store discussing options and reviewing our sketches, then struggled to fit all the boxes into our van. The assembly was arduous, and we were on the brink of giving up on the project. Despite the rocky road, now that our new cabinets are finished, we love them. Why is that?


The experience you are describing is something that colleagues and I studied in 2011 and dubbed the “IKEA effect.” The basic idea is that after we devote effort to something, we have more positive feelings toward it; we become attached.

This phenomenon is not restricted to the assembly of furniture. Having to add an egg or some milk to instant cake mix, for instance, makes you feel much more accomplished than getting a store-bought cake, despite the minimal involvement. Personal effort matters, even when it is small.


Dear Dan,

We often hear in the news about politicians being indicted on bribery charges. Does this mean that politicians are dishonest people compared with other professions?


Yes and no. I don’t think that politics attracts dishonest people, but I do think that systems that become corrupt, political or otherwise, can turn their members dishonest. In a number of experiments, my research team at Duke found that decisions to be honest are largely influenced by what we see other people around us doing. Take highway driving: If drivers around you are speeding, you are more likely to join in. In the same way, a person who enters a corrupt political system may quickly adjust to the norms of that workplace.

This means that the more corruption there is, the more likely it is to spread. Even worse in the political sphere is how visible politicians are, which means that as the rest of us see them act in corrupt ways, it may affect our sense of what corruption is permissible in our own lives.


Dear Dan,

I just got notified by my employer about the option to work at the office, instead of remotely. Given that my work quality was very low while working from home, I thought I would be excited. Instead, I’m considering continuing to work from home. Why am I feeling so tentative about going into the office?


Performance can have an impact on self-image. When people have doubts about their performance, there’s a tendency to self-handicap. For example, the night before a big test, a student might stay up too late in order to have a handicap—lack of sleep—to later explain their poor performance.

It’s possible that during the past year you have attributed struggles with work to the challenges of working from home, instead of to your own capabilities. Returning to work in person may force you to face an uncomfortable reality. From this perspective, choosing to work from home could be a form of self-handicapping, to maintain the excuse. My advice: Go back to working in person. The social and emotional benefits will quickly outweigh the possible downsides.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.