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).
Tonya@Budget and the Beach says
I’ve definitely experienced this in my life, most recently when I went to an outlet store for “one pair of shoes” and ended up with a dress, a couple shirts, another pair of shoes.. I think learning patience and delayed gratification are important, and also if that’s not quite possible yet, stay away from stores, especially trigger stores (mine is Target) as much as possible.
I’m so guilty of this! I recently found a great pair of gently used dark pink sandals that I could see working really well in my wardrobe and replacing some sandals that are falling apart. So I bought them, congratulating myself on my thriftiness. And then I started looking for matching earrings. :-)
nicole sitz says
Why did you have to post this? I was planning to buy a new headboard today just because I’m tired of my current one. Along with my new headboard I wanted to buy other new accessories as well as paint my walls a new color. I totally get this post. I guess I needed a sign not to place that order today. But, it is hard not to get into this trap.
Heather @ Simply Save says
So true! I experienced this when I had a career change and thought I needed a whole new wardrobe! I think simply being aware that this is at play can really help.
Daisy @ Simplicity Relished says
Wow! I think I need to read Diderot’s essay. The concept of going from master to slave is really fascinating.
In the meantime, I completely agree with you that we often choose to be defined by what we own. That definition, then, becomes the place in which our security and identity lies… and so we feel compelled to spiff it up every once in a while. Detaching ourselves from those possessions certainly helps us steep ourselves in greater things. This was an excellent post!
I haven’t heard of this before, but I find the notion fascinating. Now I’ll be on the look out for it, in myself and in my family.
I knew there was something to be said for keeping our functional, hand-me-down furniture (even though I’m well into adulthood, the only piece of furniture I’ve ever bought new is a mattress). We definitely own it. ;-)
Christina @ Embracing Simple says
I actually have never heard of the “Diderot Effect”, but I absolutely see how that works in my own life too. I definitely think the most important thing is realizing that it’s happening, and try to not get stuck in the mentality of needing everything to “match”. This is why I like to have a lot of black in my accessories/big clothing purchases. All my coats for every season are black, as are my purse, diaper bag, etc. Black goes with everything :)
Vicki Annico says
Similarly, replacing functioning items with their newer counterparts results in additional spending. Purchasing a new dishwasher requires the purchase of dishwasher “pods. Do they get the dishes cleaner? No, you also have to purchase a rinse aid to get the “gunk” off of utensils and to remove dishwasher “spots”. Years ago, some dish soap and a cloth worked just fine. A new refrigerator requires a semi annual purchase of water filters. Replacing car keys with a remote means new batteries and so on. In the end, we really don’t have more, the things we have require additional purchases to make them work!
white vinegar can replace the finishing rinse in your dishwasher – it works fine :)
Great article. I’m aware of this effect in myself (and so pretty good at avoiding it), but now I have a fancy new term to describe it!
Ali @ Anything You Want says
I have absolutely noticed the Diderot effect in my life (although I’ve never heard of it formally before). I especially notice it with technology. As soon as I get a new phone I think that my iPad is really slow and should be replaced. The last point – “Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.” – seems the most helpful to me in combating this. I need to really understand why I use items and then find items that suffice to fulfill that need.
Ah, phones. In the early 1980’s, the (one) phone company was required to allow people to purchase the phones for which we had been charged monthly rent. I still have mine. They were built to last and they do.
Still, with all the “press this for that,” I eventually wanted a phone with buttons to supplement the old rotary dial phone. I asked a friend, who said “I always buy” whatever brand it was.
Always buy? Nah, you buy one phone and that’s it.
I did get a push button phone and eventually added a pre-paid cell phone for $14.99 at radio shack which gets used a few times a year. I last turned it on and used it when I was away from home and my car would not start.
Some people do need cellphones, but I cherish being able to focus uninterrupted on what I am doing.