Diderot Effect – Why We Buy Things We Don’t Need – And How to Resolve this

Do you ponder over the goals we pursue, the things we own, and the items we buy?

There are infinite reasons (or excuses) we purchase more stuff than we need. Some motivations are shoved into our faces by society – peer pressure and keeping up with the Joneses, anyone?. But other causes seem to spring from our own internal motivations.

However, if we understand idea of over accumulation, how purchases often lead to more, unplanned purchases, then we can begin to break its cycle and resist this pattern of unnecessary consumerism.

The fact is, such motivation for over-consumption, originally noted in the 18th Century by a French philosopher named Denis Diderot, is still commonplace among us.

The simplest explanation 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.”

diderot effect consumerism

It means,  new consumption often leads to further consumption. But more than that, we begin identifying with our possessions and search for new things that fit into our specific mold. The purchase of a vehicle, for instance, is rarely about the functional use of transport—it’s not just about getting from point A to point B. Instead, the purchase of the vehicle (and everything else) represents an opportunity for status or self-expression.

The background of Diderot effect

The famous French philosopher Denis Diderot lived nearly his entire life in poverty, but that all changed in 1765.

Diderot was 52 years old and his daughter was about to be married, but he could not afford to provide a dowry. Despite his lack of wealth, Diderot’s name was well-known because he was the co-founder and writer of Encyclopedie, one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the time.

When Catherine the Great, the emperor of Russia, heard of Diderot’s financial troubles she offered to buy his library from him for £1000 GBP, which is approximately $50,000 USD in 2015 dollars. Suddenly, Diderot had money to spare.

Shortly after this lucky sale, Diderot acquired a new scarlet robe. That’s when everything went wrong.

Diderot’s scarlet robe was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that he immediately noticed how out of place it seemed when surrounded by the rest of his common possessions. In his words, there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” between his robe and the rest of his items. The philosopher soon felt the urge to buy some new things to match the beauty of his robe.

He replaced his old rug with a new one from Damascus. He decorated his home with beautiful sculptures and a better kitchen table. He bought a new mirror to place above the mantle and his “straw chair was relegated to the antechamber by a leather chair.”

Why We Want Things We Don’t Need

You can spot similar behaviors in many other areas of modern life:

  • You buy a new dress and now you have to get shoes and handbags to match.
  • You buy a new bike and soon you’re paying for more biking accessories than you ever know existed.
  • You buy a new couch and suddenly you’re questioning the color matching of your entire living room. Those chairs? That coffee table? That carpet? They all gotta go.

Life has a natural tendency to become filled with more. We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify, to eliminate, to reduce. Our natural inclination is always to accumulate, to add, to upgrade, and to build upon.

Mastering the Diderot Effect

The Diderot Effect tells us that your life is only going to have more things fighting to get in it, so you need to to understand how to curate, eliminate, and focus on the things that matter.

Minimize exposure: Nearly every habit is initiated by a trigger. The fastest ways to reduce the power of the Diderot Effect is to prevent the habit triggers that cause it in the first place. Unsubscribe from commercial emails. Call the magazines that send you catalogs and opt out of their mailings. You don’t have to go test drive the latest Honda Civic.

Buy items that fit your current system: You don’t have to start from scratch each time you buy something new. When you purchase new clothes, look for items that work well with your current wardrobe. When you upgrade to new electronics, get things that play nicely with your current pieces so you can avoid buying new chargers, adapters, or cables. Changing from Android to Apple phone is a killer.

Set self-imposed limits: Live a carefully constrained life by creating limitations for you to operate within. If you have budgeted a certain amount of money for that wedding dinners or home renovation, stick to it without incurring unnecessary consumer debts.

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. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.

Let go of wanting things: There will never be a level where you will be done wanting things. There is always something to upgrade to. Get a new Honda? You can upgrade to a Mercedes. Get a new Mercedes? You can upgrade to a Bentley. Get a new Bentley? You can upgrade to a Ferrari. Get a new Ferrari?  You can upgrade to a Bugatti. Get Have you thought about buying a private plane? Realize that wanting is just an option your mind provides, not an order you have to follow.

Remind yourself that possessions do not define you: 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.

In a nutshell…
Our natural tendency is to consume more, not less. Given this tendency, I believe that taking active steps to reduce the flow of unquestioned consumption makes our lives better.

Personally, my goal is not to reduce life to the fewest amount of things, but to fill it with the optimal amount of things. I hope this article will help you consider how to do the same.

Also read – fulfillment curve in financial life planning

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