I am not a psychologist, nor am I a philosopher. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the goals we pursue, the things we own, and the items we buy. I find it to be a fascinating study into the human spirit.
There are countless reasons we buy more stuff than we need. Some motivations are pushed upon us by society. But other causes seem to spring from our own internal motivations. Either way, arriving at a healthy understanding of why we buy more than we need is a worthy pursuit.
Which is one reason I find the Diderot Effect to be such an interesting phenomenon. This motivation for overconsumption, originally noted in the 18th Century by a French philosopher named Denis Diderot, is still commonplace among us.
The simplest description of the Diderot Effect is this: “the introduction of a new possession into a consumer’s existence will often result in a process of spiraling consumption.”
In other words, the purchase of one new item often leads to the purchase of another. We can see this play out in small ways:
Last week, my wife took my 9-year old daughter school shopping for the upcoming year. On her shopping list was a new backpack. After viewing her choices, my daughter chose one. But this new backpack does not match the lunch bag she used last year—and so, almost immediately, “new lunch bag” was added to the shopping list, even though her lunch bag from last year still worked just fine.
The introduction of a new item (the backpack) resulted in a desire for further consumption. But this, as I mentioned, is only a small example.
There are more examples of the Diderot Effect all around us:
- We buy a new shirt or dress… and immediately begin looking for new shoes to match, instead of maintaining a minimalist wardrobe.
- We bring home a new couch… and suddenly the end tables in our living room appear old and shabby, in need of replacement.
- We purchase a new car… and soon begin spending money on car washes, more expensive gasoline, or a parking pass.
- We move into a new home… and use the occasion to replace our existing bedroom set with a new one.
In each circumstance, the reality is that we already owned enough shoes and our end tables and bedroom furniture worked just fine before. But because something new had been introduced into our lives, we were immediately drawn into a process of spiraling consumption.
Denis Diderot observed and noted this phenomenon in an essay titled, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.” In the fictional story, he receives a new, elegant dressing gown from his friend, a kind gesture. However, upon receiving the gown, Denis notices all his other possessions begin to look drab and faded compared to it. He begins replacing them—all of them—even the art on the walls. And by the end of story, Denis notes, “I was absolute master of my old dressing gown, but I have become a slave to my new one.”
In this way, Diderot explains how new consumption often leads to further consumption. But more than that, he argues that we begin identifying with our possessions and search for new things that fit into our specific mold. The purchase of fashion, he would argue, is rarely about the functional use of clothing—it’s not just about finding thread to cover our bodies. Instead, the purchase of clothing (and everything else) represents an opportunity for self-expression.
But for this piece, I am more interested in the idea of over accumulation, how purchases often lead to more, unplanned purchases. Because once you understand the principle, you can begin to break its cycle.
How then might we overcome the Diderot Effect in our lives and resist this pattern of unnecessary consumerism? Let me offer some thoughts:
1. Become aware it is happening. Observe when you are being drawn into spiraling consumption not because you are in actual need of an item, but only because something new has been introduced.
2. Analyze and predict the full cost of future purchases. A store may be having a great sale on a new outfit—but if the new outfit compels you to buy a new pair of shoes or handbag to match, it just became a more expensive purchase than originally assumed.
3. Avoid unnecessary new purchases. Realize the Diderot Effect is a significant force and overcoming it is very difficult. You may avoid replacing those end tables at first, but eventually, at some point down the road, you are going to break down and buy new ones that better match the new couch. There are times when we have a legitimate need to buy new things. But the best way to overcome the Diderot Effect is to never allow it to overpower you in the first place.
4. Remind yourself that possessions do not define you. The abundance of life is not found in the things that you own. Your possessions do not define you or your success—no matter what marketers will try to tell you.
5. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Stop trying to impress others with your stuff and start trying to impress them with your life.
Notice the Diderot Effect in your own life. Soon, as you begin to recognize it around you, it will become one less cause of unnecessary consumerism in your home and wallet (assuming that wallet already matches your handbag).
One of your best post , thanks
Başak y. says
Hi, i’m woman,35. I used to have few clothes and spor style. Boys that i dated said, you are not cool, you must be more stylish, you must wear more attractive clothes. You must have leather jacket. Clothes are so important for women’s attractiveness at least in my society. Having so many clothes always doesnt feed my soul, i feel bad. I only try to buy pieces that i really love and wear for long time. What do you think about this? For example we talk celebrty women clothes so often.
Hi Joshua – (Sight) wow… it felt overwhelming to hear that you can be “spoiled” with so much when you don’t space out and at the end let yourself be submerged and run down your savings .
(I just didn’t know it has a name!)
I like all the points you ‘ve made, i can see well myself doing those :0I
Shilpa Kamoli says
Nicely depicted with artifacts, which added blend to your thoughts and experience.
kudos to you.
Ariel Dumaran says
This is not about thriftiness or being stingy ….rather a detachment from what ego is making us believe as reality. If you can perceive that everything is basically at its physical definition as nothing in quantum level you will begin to pursue that which gives true meaning as to who we really are at the outset. What were made of goes beyond what we possess but what or who possesses us.
Del Cusay says
If we have reach certain level of financial success in life, we also tend to level up on our living standards. Hence, we buy things that we like or want and it serves the purpose which is to look good. And if we look good, it follows that we also feel good, and then we do good or even great things… That’s also the ripple effect…
Valerie Curtis says
Joshua, I really enjoyed this blog/essay. I’m in a personal quandary now – Do I want to replace my fireplace tools because I really need all 4 tools working (and looking all shiny and bright) or am I looking to replace the tools because I can well afford to buy them so I should? I’ll debate on this, with myself, for a few weeks.
Why not “clean” the tools? I had been looking for a couple of cabinets for my laundry room. Scoured Marketplace and ReStore and couldn’t find anything. I went home and typed “free” into the Marketplace search engine and someone down the street had just put in a brand new, mass and poorly produced kitchen, discarding their old, solid wood one as “undesirable”. I got in my car, drove over (with my wall measurements where the cabinets were to go) and picked up two of them. I took them apart, cleaned the hinges, sanded and painted the cabinets with an updated colour and replaced only the knobs since the old ones were removed. My best friend thought I had gone out and purchased two brand new cabinets. We have to start taking care of what is already HERE. I get huge satisfaction in working on something to make it into something new.
Really interesting article. I am going to find more information about this Diderot effect. It is totally true! Thanks ????
It always amazes me that persons who consider a simple and minimalist life to be perfect for them, seem unable to allow that other persons can find a busy and abundant life perfect for themself. For example, we live in a shed with only a basic setup, which is comfortable enough for us but also own many vehicles and other items which give us joy. So we are seen by some to be minimalist when they look upon our home but seen by others to be over abundant when they look upon our possessions. However we are happy and content with strong personal relationships. I enjoy discussion on many and varied topics but would not deem my views more important or valid than any other. Therefore I find it mildly distressing reading some replies here that disallow the persons comment to be as valid, educated or intelligent as the person replying to said comment. We all be on a quest for contentment and happiness and will all find these in many different ways.
Catherine Black says
Diderot is a great topic for this forum. It may be working in reverse for me presently. The more things I give away / pare down/ eliminate/ etc the more I want to remove.
Heather Day Patrek says
This concept reminds me of the Children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numerous.
Heather Day Patrek says
Auto correct… author Laura Numeroff
Rogie S. Gadian says
Thank you for this Diderot article. It’s my first time to hear this theory but this mirrors how we live.
Buy the things you like, but don’t overdo it. Just like everything else in your life.
An interesting tie-in to this is the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, which is effectively less joy is gained from successive purchases / consumption.
Danielle Chassin says
Great post Joshua! I was so excited to see Diderot in the title, as I remember discussing this same smoking jacket / dressing jacket story in graduate school. Recently memory of the story came back to me when thinking about minimalism and the culture of acquisition. On my blog, I wrote about how we can apply the Diderot effect (or the Smoking Jacket Phenomenon) in a reverse manner to simplify our spaces — trying to turn the effect on its head. Anyway, thank you, as always, for writing and inspiring others to follow a path of less.
The question for me is: why does it matter ?
Having something may not be useful, but not having it is not more useful.
It may be hard to admit, but lack of possessions do not define you either.
Why not just buy what you want, and focus on more important things ? What is the downside ?
My guess is that if you don’t understand the joy of minimal possessions yet, then you haven’t reached the point in your life where you know what you really want and what will really make you happy. It is natural, even for well adjusted people, to desire possessions. It perpetuates a feeling of self worth and goes a long way to show others that we are successful….. but eventually, you will find something more important to you. And unless you have had some life altering experience that shows you what a waste of time your pursuit of material objects has been, then you may have to wait till you are older to realize how unimportant ‘things’ really are.
N L says
“you may have to wait till you are older” … not patronising in the slightest!! Such a judgemental thing to say when you know absolutely nothing about the person you are referring to.
What about individuality? Some people would be quite happy, in the modern day, to live in a one room house with a hole in the ground for a toilet and a river for a bath … others not. We CHOOSE to have things because we ENJOY them, we don’t buy beyond our means but we LIKE having things around us … and funnily enough, THAT’S OK.
Margaret Moloney says
Exactly, the point of this blog is to notice when enough is enough. The point is not to have nothing, but rather not to have the tail wagging the dog.
Jesse Nichols says
There is nothing wrong with buying things, but it is important to recognize when our possessions own us rather than bring us joy. My litmus test for any purchase (e.g. A water bottle that costs $30) is “Will this bottle bring me $30 worth of joy?” and “How long will that joy last?”.
Setting up an internal system of checks and balances for our purchases keeps us from becoming materialistic and allows us to focus on things that are more important than “things” (i.e. Experiences, friends, family, etc.).
Yvonne Hellyar says
I hear what you are saying and have wondered about this myself. For me, this blog speaks of excess. Too many possessions, most of them unnecessary – bought with money that we can’t really spare. It is sad to see families in a debt spiral, simply acquiring random stuff. I am certainly not planning to go without, but I find that I am becoming more thoughtful about buying and more aware of the traps set by advertisers/retailers to encourage the consumers to spend more than they planned.
@JuJu – you’re absolutely right. But the issue currently is that we all have far far far far too much. And few of us have ever think about whether all the things they currently have bring them value, or about whether their next purchase is bringing them value
>>>Why not just buy what you want, and focus on more important things ? <<< Exactly, but unfortunately 'buying more things' is currently what many see as being important
Ok, let’s examine your question, “What is the downside?” Go ask all those newly homeless. People who couldn’t pay their rent because they have nice stuff, but no savings. People who lost their homes because they have a nice big house filled with gorgeous possessions, but no money in the bank to keep that home over their heads. Go ask all the parents who can’t give their kids 3 square meals a day because they’re living paycheque to paycheque on one salary because one parent lost their job and the other is fighting to keep a roof over their heads, pay the bills, credit cards and car payment until the other is able to replace that lost job in an economy that now has double digit unemployment numbers.
That’s the downside.
People are greatly mistaking Joy with Intentional. We HAVE to downsize our expectations of happiness and find that within. People don’t want to look within because they’ve been told that life is empty unless you buy this car. Not ONE single marketing campaign shows a new couch in the projects.
I’d never heard of the Diderot Effect before– how interesting!
Hubby and I were out the other day looking for a new couch (ours is dilapidated and has served us well, but it’s time for a change). By the time we tried out the first few couches we noticed beds in the other section of the store. Before the hour had passed we had tried bed, couches, sectionals, chairs, and looked at dressers, tables… And I was dreaming of the new bedsheets and curtains to go with it all.
Since I’m the one on the minimalist journey, I noticed how we were spiralling and needed to get out of there before we spent ten grand on new furniture.
This was such a fantastic read, I’m glad baby slept in this morning so I was able to learn a little something.