The Diderot Effect: Why you buy more and more things

There’s something called the Diderot Effect. And it might be the reason you bought all that stuff.

What it is

In short, The Diderot Effect happens when you buy one thing and now feel like you have to buy another thing to go with the first thing.

Examples:

  • You move into a new apartment, so you buy all new furniture even though your previous furniture is fine and would suit the space
  • You buy a new laptop, so you buy a new case for it even though it’s the same size as your old laptop and fits in the old case
  • You are given new kitchen towels, so you buy new placemats to match the towels even though it wasn’t that long ago you bought your original placemats

The Diderot Effect makes us think we need to buy more things, when, until we bought the first new thing, we were perfectly satisfied with our previous things. It’s the comparison relative to the new thing that changes our perspective on our other things.

How the concept came about is both amusing and sad. Here it is, according to Wikipedia:

The effect was first described in Diderot’s essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown”. Here he tells how the gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown leads to unexpected results, eventually plunging him into debt. Initially pleased with the gift, Diderot came to rue his new garment. Compared to his elegant new dressing gown, the rest of his possessions began to seem tawdry and he became dissatisfied that they did not live up to the elegance and style of his new possession.

 

He replaced his old straw chair, for example, with an armchair covered in Moroccan leather; his old desk was replaced with an expensive new writing table; his formerly beloved prints were replaced with more costly prints, and so on. “I was absolute master of my old dressing gown”, Diderot writes, “but I have become a slave to my new one … Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain”.

The Diderot Effect can sneak its way into multiple areas of our lives. From our wardrobe to our home decor, the human desire for unity among our possessions can mean that an upgrade in one might make us long for an upgrade to them all. And before we know it, we’ve redone our entire home or closet.

I’ve even seen this within the minimalist community. When an aspiring minimalist hops on the capsule wardrobe bandwagon, some of the less-aware might head out to the store and buy an all new black-grey-and-white wardrobe. Now they’re all set to become a minimalist. But wait, they just spent all this money on clothes they didn’t need, when they could have paired down their existing wardrobe in true minimalist fashion.

It’s an easy trap to fall into.

But it’s hard when we want our homes and our styles to look nice. Especially with trends changing by the season. This is why I prefer to keep a simple, classic wardrobe. One that doesn’t scream trendy but doesn’t appear outdated either. It isn’t obviously missing any pieces so I am at a low risk of introducing new things and thus starting the Diderot Effect.

How to prevent it

So, what can you do once you’ve bought something new? First, be very mindful what you bring into your home. Whether it was purchased by you or a gift from a friend, if it doesn’t fit with your other possessions, reconsider keeping it. Do you want those new, fancy chairs even though they make your IKEA table look cheap sitting next to them? Maybe it’s best to keep your current chairs rather than mix up your styles and make the room look awkward until you cave and buy a new table.

Second, if you’re sure you want to keep the new item, are there changes you can make that don’t require making other purchases? For example, could you paint the table or DIY a nice faux finish on it to make it look more expensive and match the new chairs? Could you borrow a friend’s dress to wear with the new shoes you bought instead of heading to the store to buy a new one?

Third, narrow down your current possessions. Once you’ve narrowed down your things enough to where you’re satisfied, you will likely have a general style sense or aesthetic you like. All your clothes will probably fit within the same style. The pieces in your living room will likely coordinate well enough. Figuring out your style is a good step in preventing future purchases outside that style. But if your style is all over the place, that opens up all sorts of options to buy, which opens up only more and more new things to go with it.

Awareness is the first step to changing habits, and finding out about the Diderot Effect has helped me be more mindful when I shop. Knowing that it’s a slippery slope keeps me ahead of the temptation for more, and helps me make better money decisions. Plus I think this sort of stuff is just fascinating to learn about.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the references in the Wikipedia article, or read Diderot’s full essay.

 

Decluttering my life has brought me peace of mind and relief from the world around me. There’s nothing like walking into the space you created and knowing you have nothing more than what you need. I write articles to help others create that same feeling for themselves.

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