The Appeal of Handmade in an Era of Automation
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Innovation Jul 31, 2019

The Appeal of Handmade in an Era of Automation

This excerpt from the book “The Power of Human” explains why we continue to equate human effort with value.

person, robot, and elephant make still life drawing.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Why is it that, even if it has a few dropped stitches and uneven rows, we have a greater affinity for the scarf our friend knitted for us than the one we bought at a department store? Or that we cherish that ceramic mug with the slightly irregular handle more than a pristine mass-produced mug? The answer, Adam Waytz argues, is in our recognition of the sweat that went into their making.

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In this excerpt from The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us Create a Better World, Waytz, a social psychologist and professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, explains the psychology behind our attraction to the handmade, the bespoke, and the artisanal in an age of increasing automation.

The Value in Human Effort

During graduate school, my weekly Sunday routine involved visiting a neighborhood staple, Valois, where the motto is “See Your Food.” Valois was one of the few venues that brought the Hyde Park neighborhood together, with churchgoers, students, families, and even President Barack Obama every so often congregating to the counter-service cafeteria. At Valois, customers queue efficiently, ordering whatever they like— in my case, eggs, French toast, bacon, breakfast potatoes, coffee, and lemonade (a meal intended to last until evening)— while observing the cooks prepare each item. Customers slide down the line in perfect single file and meet the cashier at the end, along with their food. Although the food itself is excellent comfort fare, the procedure is what makes the experience so enjoyable.

A field experiment conducted by operations professor Ryan Buell and colleagues sheds light on the Valois experience [1]. Buell recruited customers at a university dining hall to participate in an experiment in exchange for a free sandwich. Buell randomly assigned some customers to order a sandwich for the following day and observe workers preparing their sandwiches that following day before paying. He assigned other customers simply to order a sandwich and then pick it up the following day without observing workers preparing their sandwiches. When customers observed the sandwich-making process, they reported enjoying their food more because they could see the effort the human workers put into preparing it. Even though participants who watched the workers had to wait longer for their food (sometimes four times as long as others), they preferred their experience. Precisely because of this waiting period, they appreciated the human work behind the sandwich and enjoyed their food more as a result.

Our tendency to value food based on human effort that produced it reflects a broader tendency referred to as the effort heuristic. The effort heuristic is a rule of thumb whereby people consciously or subconsciously judge the value of something based on the perceived effort put into it. The first studies examining this effect, led by psychologist Justin Kruger (of Dunning-Kruger Effect fame), demonstrated that people valued poems, paintings, and medieval armor more highly when they believed these artifacts required more human effort to produce [2]. For example, when participants learned that an artist named Deborah Kleven (a name invented for the experiment) spent four hours painting one work of art and twenty-six hours painting another work of art, they reported that the more effortful work was of higher quality and would sell for more money. Indeed, art historians suggest that one reason why experts so value the Mona Lisa is because of Leonardo da Vinci’s painstaking use of sfumato, an effortful painting technique that gradually melds colors rather than using clear lines to separate them. People find value in this effort.

So predominant is this tendency to equate human effort with value that two of history’s most famous social theorists anticipated it, despite agreeing on little else. Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, preeminent architects of capitalism and socialism, respectively, endorsed a version of what is known as “the labor theory of value.” Smith noted that “labor, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities,” suggesting that a capitalistic society enables humans to attain wealth through their own efforts rather than through predetermined natural resources or treasure bestowed to one group or another [3]. Marx viewed this equating of value with labor to be precisely the problem with capitalism. He noted that “the worker not only replaces what he consumes but gives to the accumulated labor a greater value than it previously possessed [4].” Marx suggested that capitalists exploit workers by essentially taking this value (and therefore wealth) from the people who expended the labor in the first place. Although scholars debate how consistently and strongly both Smith and Marx held this view that labor produces value, both captured how people infer significance from the human effort spent on producing a commodity.

Intention Signals Purpose

Not only does human effort produce value, but so can mere human intention as well. Psychologist Ellen Winner and colleagues demonstrated the importance of intention for value in examining an issue that plagues modern art: whether people distinguish between art made by humans compared to art made by animals such as elephants and chimpanzees [5]. Although the results of these studies might seem obvious given this book’s thesis regarding the importance of human beings, collectors have shown surprising interest in artwork by non-humans, suggesting that animal artwork has its own unique value. In 2005 at London’s Bonhams auction house, an Andy Warhol painting and a Renoir sculpture attracted so little attention that they were withdrawn from an auction while a relatively lesser known artist, Congo, sold three paintings for 14,400. In fact, Congo was a chimpanzee who died in 1964 of tuberculosis at ten years of age. Congo rose to such fame during his brief life that Picasso, Miró, and Dalí all purchased work from him, with Dalí remarking, “The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal [6]!”

In Winner’s studies, she and her colleagues examined whether Congo is an anomaly or whether people more broadly appreciate animal art. They presented participants including both art students and non-art students with pairs of artworks— one created by a professional adult artist and one created by a nonhuman animal or child. Participants had to indicate which work in the pair they preferred and then judge their quality. Sometimes the works were unlabeled, sometimes the works were labeled correctly (with animal art labeled as being generated by an animal and human art labeled as being generated by a human), and sometimes the works were labeled incorrectly (the human and animal labels were reversed).

Our tendency to value food based on human effort that produced it reflects a broader tendency referred to as the effort heuristic. The effort heuristic is a rule of thumb whereby people consciously or subconsciously judge the value of something based on the perceived effort put into it.

Impressively, both art students and non–art students consistently preferred works done by professional artists even when choosing works erroneously labeled as generated by a child, chimpanzee, or elephant. Most critically, when participants explained why they preferred works by professional adults, they did so by appealing to the artists’ intentions. Participants perceived a mind behind the artworks generated by adults, and the presence of mind enhanced people’s evaluations. In follow-up work by Winner and colleagues, participants had to identify which of a set of artworks was produced by a human professional artist, child, or animal and found that even nonexperts could identify human-made artworks with better-than-chance accuracy. Again, participants discriminated between human and nonhuman works by identifying greater intentionality (the degree of intention) in the artworks by adult humans. Intentionality signaled the presence of a human, which in turn created value.

Human intention not only enhances the significance of objects, but also the significance of experiences. Research led by Kurt Gray, for example, has demonstrated that awareness of the human intention behind an experience makes it more pleasurable [7]. In one of his studies, participants received candy and were told that either another human intentionally chose the candy for them or that the candy was selected at random. Participants consumed the candy and then evaluated how much they liked it. People who learned of the benevolent human intention behind the candy selection process rated the candy as better tasting than those who learned the candy was chosen randomly. Gray conducted another experiment showing that people experienced more pleasure from an electric massage administered by a human versus a computer because knowing a human’s benevolent intentions enhanced the experience.

I often think of this research when I interact with anyone on LinkedIn. Often, the social network suggests I congratulate one of my contacts on starting a new job. When I click to offer my congratulations, it automatically composes a message (“Congrats on the new job!”) that I can post without having to think of some celebratory sentiment on my own. Similarly, when someone sends me a congratulatory message on LinkedIn, the system automatically composes reply options for me to send including “Thanks,” “Thank you,” and a thumbs-up emoji. Out of laziness I often use the automated options, but I imagine my contacts would experience them less meaningfully if they knew these messages were generated by a machine rather than through my benevolent intentions.

In examining intentionality, Gray also demonstrated in a follow-up study that not just positive intentions but negative intentions as well can amplify the meaning of an experience. In this study, all participants received electric shocks from another person, their study partner. Participants either believed their partner was shocking them with good intentions (to win them a large prize) or bad intentions (out of simple malevolence). Participants reported how much pain they felt from each shock, and results revealed that positive intentions made the shock feel more pleasant and negative intentions made the shock feel more painful (compared to when participants received no information about human intentions). Beyond mere positivity, human intentions convey significance. Compliments that we receive by accident feel less meaningful than compliments we receive on purpose, and the same is true of insults.

In an increasingly technologically advanced age, the demand for handmade goods has never been higher.

The significance we ascribe to intentions also explains why people value human-made objects more than machine-manufactured ones. The work of psychologist Robert Kreuzbauer and colleagues shows that the confluence of two factors drives this tendency: (1) how symbolic the particular object is –– that is, how much the object is meant to communicate something, and (2) how much intentional control the creator has over the particular object [8]. In Kreuzbauer’s studies he described to participants several objects in terms of either their symbolic properties (i.e., aesthetics) or their functional properties (i.e., utility). One study, for example, described a wine glass by highlighting its shape as a symbolic property or its durability as a functional property. In addition, some participants read that the wine glass company has developed a special glassblowing technique that reflects each glassblower’s unique agency over the process, whereas other participants read that the glassblowing technique removes the agency of any particular glassblower so that the wine glasses are identical. People reported valuing the wine glass more when they read about the glass in terms of its symbolic property and learning that each one varied according to the glassblower’s work. In other words, when an object is intended to convey a symbolic expression and a human being has agency in crafting that expression, people view the object as meaningful and, therefore, valuable.

In other studies, Kreuzbauer and colleagues show that the joint presence of symbolic expression and human agency explains why people prefer handmade entities. The combination of these two factors highlights the role of the creator’s intention in generating value in a particular product, object, or work of art. Fashion designer Christian Louboutin captures this preference for human-generated object in stating, “I hate the idea of natural. For example, I prefer gardens to wild nature. I like to see the human touch. High heels are a complete invention––an extravagance. They’re far from natural, but it’s the impracticality that I adore. I prefer the useless to the useful [9].” Louboutin, known for his ostentatious designs and signature red-bottomed high heels, conveys how people come to value human-produced objects. Humans can communicate something expressive beyond mere function, and this expression coupled with intentionality can give an object enhanced meaning.

Marketing scholar Stijn van Osselaer and colleagues have conducted research showing that this preference for human-crafted entities extends toward less symbolic objects as well [10]. In their studies, participants evaluated various consumer goods (e.g., stationery, scarves, and soaps) learning that these goods were either handmade or made by machine. Participants who learned the goods were hand-made expressed more willingness to buy them, purchase them as a gift, and pay more for them.

A recent lawsuit against Maker’s Mark Whisky illustrates the premium that consumers place on human touch. Californians Safora Nowrouzi and Travis Williams claim they were defrauded by Maker’s Mark labeling their bourbon as handmade. Their lawsuit noted that despite this claim, a video of the company’s factory shows the use of machines to mix ingredients, break up grains, ferment, and distill. The plaintiffs argued that “they overpaid for the bourbon based on the claim and wouldn’t have bought it––or would have paid less––if they’d known otherwise.” Although their lawsuit was dismissed, it nonetheless highlights the value that the human-made designation confers.

Van Osselaer’s studies provide critical insight as to why people prefer handmade to machine-made products: love. Participants reported believing that handmade products contained more love and were made with more love than machine-made products. In an increasingly technologically advanced age, the demand for handmade goods has never been higher. Websites like Etsy have helped independent craftspeople who specialize in handmade products sell their goods to a broad market. And Amazon.com has similarly launched “Amazon Handmade,” a marketplace specifically for handmade products. As automation enable quick mass production of various products, the unique love perceived within handmade goods takes on enhanced value.

Similar to van Osselaer’s work, psychologist Veronika Job and colleagues showed in their research that the mere trace of a human creator enhanced people’s assessments of an object’s value [11]. Learning that a mug was “made by people in Small Factory in Nebraska” led people to value these products more compared to learning they were “made by a Small Factory in Nebraska” (with no mention of people). As with van Osselaer’s studies, Job’s participants believed that the human touch imbued objects with social qualities such as warmth, friendliness, and sincerity.

Still other research shows that human intentions convey aesthetic value. Neuroscientist Ulrich Kirk and colleagues demonstrated this belief in scanning participants’ brains while asking them to evaluate artworks [12]. Sometimes Kirk labeled the artworks as computer generated, and at other times he labeled them as coming from a real-life art gallery, even though the actual works were the same. Ostensibly human-generation artwork (relative to ostensibly computer-generated artwork) produced greater activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a key region involved in representing value and pleasure. People also rated human-made works as more appealing. This research fits with Winner’s work on human versus animal art and suggests people intuitively infer that humans have intentional minds, and these minds create value.

Excerpted from The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us Create a Better World. Copyright (c) 2019 by Adam Waytz. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Notes:

1. Ryan W. Buell, Tami Kim, and Chia- Jung Tsay, “Creating Reciprocal Value through Operational Transparency,” Management Science 63, no. 6 (May 2016): 1673– 95, https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2015.2411.

2. Justin Kruger et al., “The Effort Heuristic,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40, no. 1 (2004): 91– 98, doi:10.1016/S0022-1031(03)00065-9.

3. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1817).

4. Karl Marx, Wage-Labor and Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1847).

5. Angelina Hawley- Dolan and Ellen Winner, “Seeing the Mind Behind the Art: People Can Distinguish Abstract Expressionist Paintings from Highly Similar Paintings by Children, Chimps, Monkeys, and Elephants,” Psychological Science 22, no. 4 (March 2011): 435– 41, doi.org/10.1177/0956797611400915; Leslie Snapper et al., “Your Kid Could Not Have Done That: Even Untutored Observers Can Discern Intentionality and Structure in Abstract Expressionist Art,” Cognition 137 (April 2015): 154– 65, doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.12.009.

6. Nigel Reynolds, “Art World Goes Wild for Chimpanzee’s Paintings as Warhol Work Flops,” The Telegraph, June 21, 2005, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1492463/Art-world-goes-wild-for-chimpanzees-paintings-as-Warhol-work-flops.html.

7. Kurt Gray, “The Power of Good Intentions: Perceived Benevolence Soothes Pain, Increases Pleasure, and Improves Taste,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3, no. 5 (January 2012): 639– 45, doi.org/10.1177/1948550611433470.

8. Robert Kreuzbauer, Dan King, and Shanka Basu, “The Mind in the Object—Psychological Valuation of Materialized Human Expression,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144, no. 4 (August 2015): 764– 87, doi:10.1037/xge0000080.

9. Marianna Mairesse and Katie L. Connor, “Christian Louboutin: In His Shoes,” Marie Claire, February 27, 2012, http://www.marieclaire.com/celebrity/a6920/christian-louboutin-interview/.

10. Christoph Fuchs, Martin Schreier, and Stijn M. van Osselaer, “The Handmade Effect: What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Journal of Marketing 79, no. 2 (March 2015): 98–110, doi.org/10.1509/jm.14.0018.

11. Gregory A. Hall, “Maker’s Mark ‘Handmade’ Claim Allowed by Judge,” Courier-Journal, July 29, 2015, https://www.courier-journal.com/story/life/food/spirits/bourbon/2015/07/29/judge-dismisses-lawsuit-markers-mark/30830057/.

12. Veronika Job et al., “Social Traces of Generic Humans Increase the Value of Everyday Objects,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43, no. 6 (April 2017): 785– 92, doi.org/10.1177/0146167217697694.

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