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Monday, July 04, 2011

The Adironack Chair Effect

I was thinking about Eric's post on the supposed "Ikea" effect even before I decided yesterday to buy the two "some IMG_0135 assembly required" folding Adironack chairs at left.  I wholly agree with one thrust of Eric's comment: clearly Dan Ariely has never assembled one of these puppies.  While putting them together on the front porch (first one was 2.5 hours, second one 1.5 hours, but that included the spray-on polyurethane treatment), I experienced the "bemused spouse" effect ("why didn't you just order a couple from Costco?), the "kibitzer neighbor" effect ("hire somebody!"), the "embarrassed child" effect (apparently I was hunched over the chair torqueing a bolt and mooning passersby in the street) and the "really annoying kibitzer neighbor" effect ("well, there's something you're not good at" - N.B. he has never played golf with me).  The last comment was as he was walking by and I IMG_0136realized that the piece identifiable at right by the three screws at the left end was in upside-down, and as a result, the beveled edge was not up, making the folding function non-functional.  It is possible that the "really annoying kibitzer neighbor" effect was the direct result of observing the "law professor swears like a sailor" effect.  (By the way, the reason there are three screws is that by the time I had screwed and unscrewed the two templated ones several times, I had so stripped the holes that I need to improvise a third.)

Despite my facetiousness, I don't at all pooh-pooh heuristics and biases theorized by behavioral psychology, believing that they do indeed reflect observable and predictable behaviors.  The problem to me is any postulate of base-line rationality outside of the experimental setting.  For example, the endowment effect says you value something more than its actual market value because it's YOURS (as shown in experiments where people immediately feel that way about worthless tschotchkes the experimenter has just given them).   How, in real life, do you tag a particular heuristic or bias as being the primary reason for action as opposed to an insight into to a complex morass of reasons?  I mean, right now any "Ikea effect" (actually "Ace Hardware" effect in this case) is, I think, being offset by hindsight bias, that being that it was just as likely I could have predicted my back would be killing me before I built these, but now that my back hurts it's clear that I should have known my back would hurt.

Perhaps what I'm reacting to is an implicit normativity in the characterization of behaviors as rational and irrational, even if all rational means in this context is something like "abiding the usual assumption that utility to an individual ought to be co-equal with utility reflected in an arms'-length market price."  The impulse to private ownership, for example, seems to me less irrational than hardwired (and almost certainly evolutionarily adaptive.  I say this, having observed my dog Max, during a visit from my daughter and our grand-dog Oscar, when Oscar decided to take a snooze on Max's cushion, Max gave a warning growl, and Oscar skedaddled.)  Locke's justification of private property, which is a conceptual undertaking, can't be logic all the way down. His project is either to describe the world or posit how the world ought to be.  In either case, at some point there's a fundamental assumption or belief (an "Unconditioned" proposition), and the question is whether the descriptive or normative theory peeling back to or springing forth from that proposition does meaningful work (whatever that means), not whether the Unconditioned proposition is irrational. 

Seems to me it would be fairer to say "predictably biased," "predictably framed," or "predictably perspectival," which may all be fair observations of human behavior, without the suggestion that such behavior is necessarily wrong just because it doesn't abide by what neo-classical rational actor economics would predict (which is ironic, given that the thrust of behavioral economics is to get beyond the limitations of rational actor theory).

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 4, 2011 at 01:28 PM | Permalink


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It sounds like you're saying that there is a Bandwagon Effect that encourages people to discover new biases. And maybe that the narratives about biases (the Ikea Effect!) are themselves potentially limited because they are likely to reflect Hindsight Bias and a Confirmation Bias.

Posted by: Kaimi | Jul 8, 2011 4:06:57 PM

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