The Diderot Effect: Why We Buy Things We Don’t Need
One fateful day, Diderot’s world turned upside down.
No, he wasn’t laid off from his job. No, he wasn’t moving into a new apartment. And no, he wasn’t getting a divorce. In fact, he didn’t even realize at the time what was happening.
But before we get into all that, we need to answer the question: Who was Diderot?
Born in 1713, this philosopher had his humble beginnings in Langre, France. After receiving a Jesuit education, Denis Diderot moved to Paris to study law. However, this plan was cut short when he realized that he wanted to become a writer instead.
Like his contemporary Voltaire, Diderot’s decision went against his father’s wishes. As a result, he was promptly disowned and lived a bohemian lifestyle for the next decade.
Diderot gradually gained prominence for his works during the Enlightenment. He contributed to the Encyclopédie, a French encyclopedia intended to educate the public on world knowledge. Yet, despite his reputation and renown, he was broke.
At age 60, Diderot failed to hold any posts that could provide a means of income. So, when he needed to provide a dowry for his daughter’s marriage, he saw little alternative than to sell his library.
Upon hearing this, Catherine the Great arranged to buy his library. She appointed him as its caretaker until his death for 1,000 livres per year, and even paid him 25 years in advance. Overnight, Diderot became financially secure.
The Scarlet Dressing Gown
One day, Diderot was given a scarlet dressing gown as a gift. And that’s where all the trouble started.
There wasn’t anything wrong with the dressing gown. In fact, Diderot was ecstatic with how beautiful the gown was. All the other belongings in his apartment looked dull in comparison. To amend this, Diderot started fixing up his rooms to match his new gown.
To begin, his bland wall hangings were replaced with costly new prints. So far, so good. Next up was his old straw chair, which was tossed out and replaced with a leather chair. A large mirror was placed above the fireplace. An empty space was filled with an elegant writing desk.
Before he knew it, Diderot had completely transformed his rooms to match his dressing gown. Gone were the old, dusty décor and furniture, and in were the shiny, elegant furnishings. Was he satisfied? According to his writings, it appears not.
In the end, he regretted all the changes, lamenting, “All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty”. Diderot learned his lesson too late as he went from newfound wealth back into debt again.
This idea of a new possession leading to a spiraling pattern of consumption is known as the Diderot Effect.
Feeling the Diderot Effect in Life
Hundreds of years later, we’re still burdened by the Diderot Effect.
When something is discordant with the rest of our environment, it grates away at us until we fix it. As a result, changing one single item can result into an entire overhaul of changes, which may or may not be for the better.
Either way, we end up consuming more and more. A string of purchases are made. And, similar to Diderot, we realize that the pot of gold at the end is not as satisfying close up.
The Diderot Effect applies to many facets of our lives: our physical possessions, the places we frequent, and even the people we know. When one thing changes dramatically, we need to align everything up once again.
For instance, you might feel the Diderot Effect when you:
- Purchase new computer parts: Got a fancy new keyboard? Then maybe it’s time to upgrade your mouse, your mouse pad, and so on.
- Change the places you frequent: Your current clothes and accessories don’t match your new environment, leading to a complete makeover.
- Meet someone new: The new person in your life clashes with the other components and people in your life, so you start changing parts of your life to fit.
Even though Diderot’s tale is about consumerism, it also ties into something deeper: our sense of identity. The things in our everyday lives are a reflection of who we are.
In some ways, the things around us change how we perceive ourselves. As a result, we purchase certain items and associate ourselves with certain people and places that either reinforce or modify who we think we are. We eventually become what we surround ourselves with.
Dealing with the Diderot Effect
It’s natural for us to experience internal conflict when the things in our lives don’t fit together. So, how can we stop falling victim to the Diderot Effect? How can we stop consuming things or making changes that we end up regretting? Is there a way to avoid it?
Here are four ways:
1. Before you commit to something, envision how it will fit into your life.
While that scenic landscape print looks nice, will it look just as good in your room? Does it match with the color and other decorations in your room? Do you even have space to put it up?
When you make one change, a series of other changes are needed to accommodate that one extra item. Change isn’t always bad, but you need to consider whether it’s worth the effort to revamp all other aspects of your life.
Sometimes the unintended consequences of our actions can come back to haunt us. While the benefits of a new object, person, or place are obvious, the drawbacks are not. For instance, replacing a long-time employee may seem a simple improvement, until the new person comes in with a different set of demands that cause greater inconveniences and disruptions overall.
Decisions like these are easy to make, but difficult to reverse.
2. Think in terms of sets, not individual components.
Awhile back, I made the grave mistake of buying a jacket. There wasn’t anything wrong with it. In fact, it looked much nicer than many other jackets I owned. But in buying that jacket, I forgot to consider one important factor: Did it pair with anything else?
When I missed this critical factor, I had three choices. I could buy clothes to match, wear it (uncomfortably) with existing clothes that would clash with the jacket, or put the jacket aside. Eventually, I put away that jacket and chose to wear other jackets.
Instead of finding the shiniest accessory, decoration, or furniture, find something that pairs nicely with what you already have. That way, you won’t feel pressured to replace what you currently have or feel guilty about putting aside something that didn’t fit in.
3. Get rid of harmful environmental cues.
Going to an all-you-can-eat buffet leads to binging. Browsing retail stores results in more shopping bags in your hands. Being surrounded by people with a certain mindset shifts the way you think as well. When your environment dictates what happens, all good intentions go out the window.
If you find yourself getting an excess of what you need, avoid seeing it in the first place. For instance, block out advertisements on your emails and sites. Put healthy foods close by so they become the default choice over junk food.
The best way to stop unhealthy habits and cravings is to keep triggers out of sight.
4. Focus more on experiences than objects.
According to research, purchasing experiences provides greater satisfaction over objects. The joy you feel in purchasing an object is temporary, while an exciting experience provides a lifetime of happy memories.
Experiences include visiting the museum, attending a class, or planning a weekend getaway. Even if the event doesn’t go as anticipated, your memories of the experience tend to become more positive over time. The opposite occurs when it comes to purchasing objects.
The other benefit to experiences is that comparing one to the other can be difficult. In Diderot’s case, he clearly upgraded from an old, tatty robe to his elegant scarlet dressing gown. But can you definitively say that going snorkeling in the Caribbean was more enjoyable than a camping trip?
Don’t Step On That Slippery Slope
Once you acquire something that deviates from your current possessions, you take the first step on a slippery slope. Everything else seems stale, boring, decayed. So you adjust. You make incremental changes to fit the new possession in your life.
As long as you’re engulfed in the search for better things, you won’t stop until everything lines up perfectly. It all sounds good…until you realize that what you wanted wasn’t what you needed. Those new things you acquired eventually become old and tired. In the end, were you better off than before?
The Diderot Effect is not your fault. But just because something isn’t your fault doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.
You can avoid unhealthy triggers in the first place. You can change your focus from possessing physical objects to experiencing memorable events. And if you are considering a switch in your life, remember that what is different is not necessarily better.