What Is The Diderot Effect And How It Works

You may have heard about The Diderot Effect, but if you haven't, here's a quick run-through of what this concept is and how it works.

What Is The Diderot Effect And How It Works
Photo by Jordan Nix / Unsplash

Hey friends, today I wanted to share something that I came across while learning about different effects that humans tend to often fall into to make ourselves feel better but in return will be harmful in the long run.

What is the Diderot Effect?

The Diderot effect is a social phenomenon related to consumer goods. It is based on two ideas.

  1. The first idea is that goods purchased by consumers will align with their sense of identity, and, as a result, will complement one another.
  2. The second idea states that the introduction of a new possession that deviates from the consumer's current complimentary goods can result in a process of spiraling consumption.

The term was coined by anthropologist and scholar of consumption patterns Grant McCracken in 1988 and is named after the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784), who first described the effect in an essay.

The term has become common in discussions of sustainable consumption and green consumerism, in regard to the process whereby a purchase or gift creates dissatisfaction with existing possessions and the environment, provoking a potentially spiraling pattern of consumption with negative environmental, psychological, and social impacts. (Source: Wikipedia)

Suppose you are buying yourself a shirt, then you may get the jeans to match it and then maybe a nice jacket on top and finally nice shoes, socks and so on...

You see buying the shirt is not bad. It's the idea of wanting other things to match with the shirt and feeling the compulsive need to upgrade every aspect of the apparel is the bad thing when the only thing you went to buy was the shirt.


Why does it happen?

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

It is a natural thing to want more things once we move forward in life but not having the consequences in our head will only be a spiral for us and it happens in mostly all parts of our lives.

We, start with one thing and then match everything according to it.

Here is an example, I did which just spiraled me to buy more.

You know the game World Series Of Poker. I used to be good and played it for hours. So, Once I started using money in that game and within a week I spent over 2000. That is when I realized it was not worth it and uninstalled it.

I agree 2000/- is not a lot of money but to me at that time was huge as I was a college student. So, unknowingly we all do the same thing and keep going in a spiral to match with be it our identity, our status, or our environment.

Where does the Diderot effect take place?

This effect was mentioned in one of the writings of the famous French Philosopher Denis Diderot who is renowned for writing the French Encyclopedia.

When the Empress 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. This Diderot effect was formed from a story from when Diderot was 52 years old. His daughter was about to be married, but he could not afford to provide a dowry. When the Empress 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. This Diderot effect was formed from a story from when Diderot was 52 years old. His daughter was about to be married, but he could not afford to provide a dowry.

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 everything in his room to match the robe and that is when he started to notice how everything actually too much money which he unintentionally started. Here is the french essay in English translation if you are interested.  Look at the title which already shows he is talking about the mistakes he made and we must watch out as well.

Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or
A warning to those who have more taste than fortune
Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown by Denis Diderot 1769

These impulsive purchases have come to know as the Diderot Effect.


What you can do about it?

We can't completely ignore every want we have and live our lives. We must constantly think, reflect, and rethink the choice we are about to make to buy a certain thing. Nowadays, everything is available in abundance, the least you can do is choose wisely. A few things I have read and are absolutely easy steps are:

Do you really need it? Or is it just a passing cloud in your sky:

There are many things in the world that we might seem interesting but evaluating what is absolutely necessary will improve our chances of not falling into the trap.

Embrace the idea that "things are not what they seem like":

Before making a judgment based on how others are living, take a moment to reflect on whether you can handle the amount of work, fame, and embarrassment the work might cause or take effect.

We are humans, after all. We can't be cautious about everything, which will take out the momentary pleasure and comfort, and also being cautious of things can take a significant amount of your time. So, be prepared to give your time.

Taking a week before buying something

Taking a week before deciding to mean once you decided to buy it, intentionally wait a week and it will be amazing and practical if it is a month.

Personal story, I bought a digital pad, that allows me to sketch and paint on my mobile using a pen, I thought it can replace the need for my iPad, where I can type, paint, and also use it for research purposes as an extra screen. I waited a week but still ended up not using it only after a few months as it was tiring.

So, I would recommend taking a month before you buy and actually deciding to buy it.

Maintain a limit on how much you spend

This is to be the best case to overcome buying but it's so hard. Living on a limit. We believe in Yolo(You Only Live Once) and take a jump but often times we don't need Yolo's motive for everything.

I would suggest maintaining your spending so, really you can track how much you have and how much you can willingly buy is a huge step in the right direction. There is an entire book talking about the relationship between humans and money. I have written a summary about it and the book is called "The Psychology Of Money". I highly recommend this book to understand money and how it works:

The Psychology Of Money - Book Summary | Melvin Raj
An essential read for anyone interested in being better with money.

In conclusion, the Diderot effect is a common problem, and you should know how to deal with it. I know you may think we are not like Denis Diderot but everybody goes through that stage where money is not an issue and we can afford anything we want. Knowing what to do in those situations and the mistakes he made that we try and learn.  

So, the key takeaways would be:

  1. Think before buying
  2. Embrace the idea that "things are not what they seem like":
  3. Delay the purchase to think if it is absolutely necessary.
  4. Set spending limits each month and spend based on it.



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