The Struggle Makes the Reward


Why does anyone buy anything from IKEA? You open the box and are left with an inordinate amount of pieces, that somehow you’re supposed to use a pictograph instruction book to put the whole thing together. It is a test of your will, patience, and ingenuity. And in some cases, your marriage! (It’s become known as “The IKEA test” for new couples.) Sure, the price point is solid, but it’s not like you can’t find cheaper furniture elsewhere.

And yet, I like IKEA, and I bet many of you do too. One small reason is that we have to actually construct the drawers we bought. When we put effort into creating or making something, it increases the value we assign to the thing itself. In psychology, researchers conveniently dubbed this the ​IKEA effect​. When we put something together by ourselves, even if it’s of worse quality than something we could have bought pre-built, we’re left with a deeper satisfaction.

This isn’t just about assembling furniture. ​Recent research​ found that cognitive effort boosts our brain’s responsiveness to rewards. The high of finishing the job is better when we’ve worked hard to get there. But it’s not quite as simple as work harder, feel better about the creation. There’s more to it.

In the aforementioned study on the brain’s reward responsiveness, there was a large degree of individual variation. The researchers found that those who didn’t mind working hard got a stronger boost. How they saw the work mattered. If hard work was viewed as a net negative, something that study participants wanted to avoid no matter what, there may be either a small or no reward boost at the end of project. In other ​research​, social scientists called this variation the effort paradox. Sometimes working hard boosts the value of the pursuit. Other times, it acts as a negative, serving as a reminder that the juice is not worth the squeeze. That is to say, effort can also devalue the reward. What research suggests is that there is a sweet spot. Too much effort and it feels like job or chore. Too little, and the task seems trivial. In other words, to reach a deeper level of satisfaction, we need to go in with the right mindset and the right amount of challenge. I’ve thought about this a lot as our world changes in two important ways:

The first is with AI continuing to develop and make life easier. In many ways, AI can be a game changer. If it helps teachers and doctors fill out an endless amount of paperwork, that’s wonderful. But if it’s used to shortcut the necessary struggle that leads to enjoyment and satisfaction, is that a net good? In my own profession of writing, I’m thinking about wrestling with a first draft. The messy process where you bounce between aha moments, tossing pages into the trash, and going back to the drawing board. It sucks. But it’s that struggle that leads to not only a better product, but a much more fulfilling experience once the book is done. And one that we ultimately learn from, and value more.

Second, we live in a world that is flooded with cheap and shallow rewards. We can get hits of dopamine and other reward molecules without doing much besides playing the Internet’s version of slot machines. We get our feeling of superiority and pseudo confidence by dunking on someone on social media. Yet, these and similar ‘rewards’ are fleeting and meaningless. They don’t leave us satisfied, but instead they leave us craving the next cheap hit.

As we move into a metaworld pushing us to virtual everything with cheap AI content flooding the internet, I can’t help but think the IKEA effect will become even more important. We’ll need to ​do real things in the real world​, that are both hard and creative. We need to return to valuing craftsmanship and hobbies. We need to choose exercise habits not necessarily to compete or to post on TikTok but to feel that deep satisfaction of getting through the just-manageable hard project or workout. We need artists and creatives who stare at the blank page, or work through fifteen iterations of a piece before finding the right mixture. It’s that kind of mixture that leave us satisfied, and for a moment, content.


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