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The Diderot Effect: Why Getting Something New Can Make You Sad

Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot

The Sadness of New Things

Have you ever experienced this? You buy something new. It's really spiffy, and you're very pleased. But when you start using it, a lot of your old stuff starts to seem shabby and out-of-place. So you have to buy some new things that look sharp and new to "go with" that new thing you just bought.

What's happening here is a kind of compulsion called the Diderot Effect. The concept and the name come from 18th-century philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot. After receiving a beautiful new scarlet dressing-gown (robe) as a gift, Diderot soon found himself becoming rather depressed. In contrast with his gorgeous new dressing-gown, lots of his other possessions began to pale by comparison, and thus need replacement.

He started to replace these items one by one, forsaking his older things, even some of his favorites, for newer ones that seemed more compatible with his new dressing-gown. This soon escalated into a de facto shopping spree in which much of his collection of older clothing, furniture, art objects, and other possessions was discarded and replaced.

Unfortunately for Diderot, the outcome was not happy. He plunged deeply into debt, but even worse, in many cases his newly acquired possessions were not as comfortable, pleasing, or as compatible with his needs as his original ones were. (He even sorely missed his old, shabbier dressing-gown!) Fortunately for the rest of us, Diderot recounted his experience in a famous essay, Regrets sur ma Vieille Robe de Chambre (Regrets Over My Old Dressing Gown).

Caught in a Trap

As a psychological phenomenon, the Diderot Effect was first identified and named by the anthropologist and social researcher Grant McCracken in the 1980s, and it's widely recognized among today's psychologists and modern marketing industry professionals. As McCracken later contended in a 2005 essay, this compulsive dysfunction seems to be driven by a kind of aberration in Western culture.

We know, thanks to Diderot, that there was a Western convention that says that everything in a consumer’s choice set (syntagmatic chain) must come from the same place in the paradigmatic category. Everything, coat, shirt, pants, must be of roughly equal quality, cost, formality and style. You couldn’t mix without looking odd.

While for individuals the Diderot Effect can be a behavioral dysfunction causing some significant problems, for marketers and retailers it's beyond their wildest dreams. It enables them to sell you an array of products you probably wouldn't think you need, and wouldn't buy otherwise.

Its deleterious influence is peculiarly strong. As one analysis explains, because what you own tends to be "cohesive" with your "sense of identity", you'll have a gnawing feeling that your new possession is somehow "deviant" from the array of your current "complementary" possessions, and this sense of incohesion can set off "a process of spiraling consumption".

Warning "beware!" another writer describes the Diderot Effect as "a pernicious consumption trap" and cautions readers: "There's a disease waiting for you called the Diderot Effect that will cause you to spend far more money than you ever imagined."

In a companion article, he relates the Diderot Effect to the "work and spend cycle", warning that it's ...

... a powerful and effective trap for consumers – so effective, in fact, that Americans at every socio-economic level spend all (or worse, more than all) of their discretionary income on fundamentally meaningless stuff, having no idea that they're caught in a trap at all. Life is meant for so much more than working too hard to make money that you mindlessly spend.

In an analysis of the Diderot Effect posted on the website, writer Scotty Hendricks warns that, in Diderot's case, the compulsion led to "a vicious cycle of consumption"; therefore all of us "need to be wary of where one out of place purchase can lead." His antidote seems to emphasize "avoiding the temptation to shop" altogether—but that's pretty drastic. After all, don't we need to replace stuff that actually wears out?

Protecting Yourself

So, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves against this "pernicious consumption trap"? Various researchers and writers (including some of those cited above) have suggested an array of defensive strategies. Here's how some of the most promising basically boil down.

  • Appreciate more fully the value of each of your possessions, especially your favorite and most useful ones. Avoid letting them just become "decorations" in the context of other or similar items you own. Focus on what any individual possession, in and of itself, is really worth to you.
  • Don't surrender to the temptation to over-indulge yourself. Don't suddenly turn into a spendthrift. Be wary of these tendencies, especially if you happen to have some "extra" cash.
  • Similarly, restrain the temptation to "upgrade" your lifestyle just because you've received, say, an unexpected windfall, or a substantial new raise in pay.
  • Avoid being manipulated by ads promoting newer products and disparaging older things like what you might have. Likewise, don't let yourself be drawn into envy of what someone else has when your own product is still very useful and pleasing to you.

Most of all, stay on guard against this malicious compulsion, now that you know what it is. And keep in mind that it's really not in your best interest to make the marketing and retail industries wealthier, but rather to seek real and enduring happiness for yourself and make your own life more satisfying.

© 2019 Lyndon Henry