Friday, 22 July 2011

Ariely’s Origami

The following is a recent 5 minute video from behavioural economist Dan Ariely. It makes the case that we ascribe greater value to things we work to produce rather than things we simply buy or commission.

In a general sense he's probably right, we may well benefit from greater "surplus, utility and happiness" when surrounded by things made by our own hands rather than things made by other people. However, interesting as I find many of Ariely’s ideas and reassuring as it was to hear him making a convincing case for the fruits of our creative labours, the video left me with more questions than it provided answers.

In the video Ariely mentions a study he undertook where people were given instructions to make origami shapes. When these people were asked to put a value on their origami they attributed greater value to their own shapes than other people’s and they also believed that their own were more beautiful.

Backing up his claims with research certainly reinforces the point but I can’t help thinking that when you eliminate all the variables from a complex set of relationships, as this kind of research often does, then you need to be very careful with the extent of the conclusions you draw from the results gathered. Imagine for instance, an alternative experiment where you asked people to make origami shapes but you paid them a pittance to produce lots of identical ones. Or imagine you got an expert to guide people and show them some examples of really sophisticated origami to compare with their own. I think it’s likely that in both of these instances people would exhibit varying opinions about the value and relative beauty of their work. As the second of these examples suggests, a significant element that seems to be missing from Ariely’s account is expertise and it’s closely related dimension of skill. Following Ikea instructions or an origami diagram is one thing, but as tasks become more complex the level of skill necessary to complete them to a satisfactory standard increases accordingly. The risk of a botched job and the potential for additional costs in time and materials of having to repeat the process also increase and who wants to be constantly reminded of how poor their plastering skills are every time they look at the wall?


Anonymous said...

I KNOW I'm not an intellectual now, as this is what that video made me think of:

J. Hamlyn said...

Great bit of lateral thinking there Anonymous - there's obviously a lot more to 'knowing' than intellect alone!

Anonymous said...

The accrued skill in mastering a task has equal importance to the conceptual ideals that drive the need to perform the task.

Why are you making origami why not paper planes?

Through repetition of a task you get better at it and you understand the skill and why you perform it more deeply.

J. Hamlyn said...

“These findings do not mean that people enjoy painful experiences, such as filling out their income-tax forms, or that people enjoy things because they are associated with pain. What they do show is that if a person voluntarily goes through a difficult or a painful experience in order to attain some goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive.” – Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

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