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Have You Fallen Victim to the Diderot Effect?

I am interested in health, fitness and healthy eating. I live in the Netherlands.

Our Buying Behavior

We got a new front door because it needed to be replaced. We decided it needed some color as well. That goes without saying, doesn't it? No sooner said than done. We went to the paint shop to choose a color for our new front entrance.

Not long after painting it, we decided to replace the other doors on our ground floor too. But it didn't stop there. We thought the existing walls and ceiling needed to be adapted to the new situation.

So buying a front door (which did need a replacement) finally led to a complete renovation of the living room and kitchen — a renovation we had never even considered before.

Does that sound familiar? It probably does.

After all, our purchasing behavior is subject to influences, often unconscious. If you want to reduce your purchases, it is good to become aware of things that affect it.

This question brings me to the topic of the Diderot Effect. Have you ever heard of it before? Even if you haven't, you might have fallen victim to it.

Who Was Diderot?

Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) was a smart French writer, philosopher, and art critic. He was also editor of the Encyclopédie between 1750 and 1776 with Jean le Rond d'Alembert. For this Encyclopédie, he wrote about 6,000 of the 72,000 articles.
Think of this Encyclopédie as an 18th century Wikipedia.

It is difficult to imagine that a person alone could write such a large number of articles. He had to do this without using a typewriter or word processor. But in those days, there was no TV or internet to distract you from your work.

Diderot was in favor of freedom of expression and religion. This was not self-evident at the time. And today's readers may wonder if we are heading back in time in that respect.

Anyhow, Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717 - 1783) raised the bar with their Encyclopédie. They wanted to change the concept of knowledge itself. They thought that knowledge is crucial for:

  • the free individual,
  • the good citizen and
  • a tolerant, enlightened society.

The "Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers", as the work is called in full, is widely regarded as the most important French Enlightenment work.

This chapter in the life of Diderot is quite fascinating in its own right. Even so, I'll now move on to the Diderot effect. After all, that was the reason for writing this article.

What is the Diderot Effect? (And How to Overcome It)

Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown

The Diderot effect was first described in Diderot's essay "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown." Here he tells about a gift from his girlfriend, who gave him a new robe.

This new beautiful scarlet dressing gown made him feel that he suddenly needed other new things as well. Because the rest of his possessions began to seem cheap and showy, he became dissatisfied that they did not live up to his new dressing gown's elegance and style.

So he bought new things like a feather duster because he used to use the sleeve of his old dressing gown to wipe dust with. A new four-seater couch because the old one looked so worn compared with his new robe. In the end, the new dressing gown even got him into debt due to all the purchases he made after receiving it as a gift.

"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 strain".

So, Where Does This Leave Us?

I bet many of us can relate to this happening to us too.

We move into a new house and suddenly need new furniture.

We buy a new shirt and include a pair of pants and shoes and a jacket in the latest fashionable colors.

Although there are all kinds of reasons to give in to such a 'buying spiral,' we were often delighted with what we had before buying the new item. However, as soon as that new item makes its appearance, everything else suddenly looks different. More middle of the road. As if it doesn't match our great new purchase anymore.

Mastering the Diderot Effect

Break the cycle: stop those unplanned purchases.

Don't get me wrong. This certainly isn't a plea to never make spontaneous purchases again. But when it comes to those unplanned further purchases that make your first purchase much more expensive than you had anticipated, you might want to know if there is something you can do about that? The answer is: Yes. You can break the cycle of the Diderot effect.

1. Notice when it happens

Think about situations in which the Diderot effect has shown up in your life. Ask yourself whether you bought something because you needed it or out of habit or opportunity.

2. Think the costs through

Do you need to replace your coffee maker? Or do you have other plans for a new purchase? Think through all the involved expenses carefully. And see if you still have the money for it. It's not said that your purchase will lead to buying more stuff., But there is a chance, especially if you don't give it any thoughts beforehand. Buying on an impulse happens just too often.

3. Avoid unnecessary new possessions

The Diderot effect is quite difficult to avoid. One of the easiest ways not to fall prey to it is by not buying anything new at all. Now I know that's not always possible, but you'll find that the Diderot effect is less powerful when you replace something because it's needed. So try to limit your new purchases to only what is necessary. Let go of wanting things.

There is always something to upgrade to. Realize that wanting something is just an option your mind provides, not an order you have to follow.

5. Buy useful things

If you buy something, pick up useful items and not things you use to impress others. If you want to impress someone else, do so with your lifestyle rather than with your belongings.

5. You are not what you own

Sometimes having a lot of stuff can make you feel rich. A feeling of abundance. Then it is essential to remind yourself that you are not what you have. Whatever society sometimes tries to tell you, your success or value as a person cannot be measured by what you have. So, remember, you are fabulous because of who you are, not what you own.

I do hope that your future purchases will be "Diderot Effect" free for the most part!

Resources

Diderot Effect on Wikipedia

Denis Diderot

The Diderot Effect is a subtle phenomenon

You may never realize when it has taken hold. And it has a massive impact on our finances.

If you want to share examples of purchases that, in retrospect, followed the Diderot effect, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Comments

Raymond Philippe (author) from The Netherlands on September 14, 2020:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Appreciated.

Raymond Philippe (author) from The Netherlands on September 14, 2020:

Thanks Liz. I'm glad you found something useful in it.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 12, 2020:

I often bought what no longer had value and replaced what needed to. This is how we live or choose to live. Useful and nice to know what makes us who we really are.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 11, 2020:

I hadn't heard of this before, but it makes a lot of sense. Having read your fascinating article, I shall now be analysing my purchasing behaviour.

Raymond Philippe (author) from The Netherlands on September 11, 2020:

Ann and Niaz, thanks for dropping by and leaving kind comments.

Raymond Philippe (author) from The Netherlands on September 11, 2020:

Flourish, I think I'd do the same if I found myself in the situation you described. Thanks for your positive feedback.

Raymond Philippe (author) from The Netherlands on September 11, 2020:

Hi Eric, you are right. Without acknowledging, there is a problem and the motivation or habits to change it, behavior will not change.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 10, 2020:

I guess that’s the kitchen I’m about to renovate after getting new carpet in the family room plus repainted walls and new furniture and refinished hardwood floors I all downstairs. To be fair, we’ve been in the house 20 years though. That video was extra good. Your topic and examples were great.

Ann Carr from SW England on September 10, 2020:

Interesting and amusing, with some useful advice! I enjoyed the read. Yes I've done similar things but not on any great scale. The lockdown has taught me that I rarely need new.

Refreshingly different article.

Ann

Niaz Mohammed Khan on September 10, 2020:

A very interesting topic discussed in a very professional way. Unfortunately, I'm such type and almost always land in buying things, first of all, that are not requred to buy and then buy other things as Diderot effect! This article will certainly help me in switching my mode!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 10, 2020:

Hmm, I know someone prone to this. Akin to shopaholics. It causes problems. Your suggestions a very good if the person is motivated.