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Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Ikea Effect and Locke's Theory of Property


I'm reading Predictably Irrational a behavioral economics popularization by Dan Ariely. I was struck by how much Ariely's exposition of irrational human attitudes toward ownership tracks John Locke's theoretical justification for private ownership of property. Ariely writes:

[T]he more work you put into something, the more ownership you begin to feel for it. Think about the last time you assembled some furniture. Figuring out which piece goes where and which screw fits into which hole boosts the feeling of ownership. ... I can say with a fair amount of certainty that pride of ownership is inversely proportionally to the ease with which one assembles the furniture ...
(Predictably Irrational, p. 175)

Ariely calls this the "Ikea effect." For me, living with a bunch of furniture I got from Ikea about 10 years ago, I would say the Ikea effect is that the more time I wasted assembling the furniture back then, the greater is my present-day desire to destroy it with an aluminum baseball bat. But anyway, check out what Locke says:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
(Second Treatise of Civil Government, ch. 5)

Perhaps this suggests that Locke's theoretical justification may have been driven less by detached logic and more by intuition springing from irrational impulse.

(Photo and composite by me; Locke engraving from public domain.)

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on July 2, 2011 at 11:51 AM in Books, Property | Permalink


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The world is so much diminished without his light and roar.

Posted by: steamdb | Aug 25, 2020 12:13:58 AM

Can Locke's quote be applied to a corporation/s in place of man/men in today's world? Would that be irrational?

Libertarians would surely challenge the charge of "irrational impulse." Is it irrational to be selfish and otherwise self-centered?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jul 4, 2011 7:56:15 AM

I think I agree with Jonathan. It's certainly true that the point that Locke is making can be and has been criticized, but I'm uncertain why that makes it irrational. I also am not sure why the argument is irrational because intuitive. Why couldn't it be rational because intuitive, in the way that many intuitions are rational? Eric, maybe you could explain more?

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jul 2, 2011 1:50:41 PM

Does the book explain why that impulse is irrational?

Posted by: jonathan | Jul 2, 2011 1:04:26 PM

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