The Diderot Effect: The Need to Keep Buying More

May 3, 2019
Understanding how our mind works and why we act a certain way (instead of another) is vital if we’re looking to change our problematic behaviors. Therefore, understanding the Diderot effect and the power it has over us can help us lower our level of spending.

Most of us buy more than we really need. This isn’t the case for everyone, however, it’s a fact that many people spend more than their income level would recommend. There are many reasons why this happens, but one of the most interesting is the famous Diderot effect.

Understanding how our mind works and why we act a certain way (instead of another) is vital if we’re looking to change our problematic behaviors. Therefore, understanding the Diderot effect and the power it has over us can help us lower our level of spending. In this article, we’ll be talking about this psychological effect and giving you some ideas to identify and combat it.

The Diderot effect – What is it exactly?

In the 18th century, French philosopher Denis Diderot described this phenomenon (hence its name). This thinker realized that acquiring something new can suddenly lead to many other acquisitions.

He was so concerned about unnecessary expenses that he began to study everything related to them. Later on, in the 20th century, anthropologist Grant McCracken elaborated on his investigations.

Among their most important discoveries and statements was the fact that the objects we possess have a direct relationship with our identity. Thus, our possessions and what we think of them also influence elements such as our self-concept and self-esteem.

McCracken considered that the correlation between our possessions was important. For example, if we proceed to buy something that’s very different from everything else we’ve acquired before, we may feel somewhat uncomfortable. Therefore, on many occasions, we tend to buy things that are in tune with the first thing we bought or with the things we already have.

And that’s exactly what happens when the Diderot effect comes into play. To better understand this concept; let’s see an example described by Denis Diderot himself while he did more research on the subject.

woman holding many shopping bags

Example: the bathrobe

The discovery of the Diderot effect was motivated by an event that changed the French philosopher’s life all of a sudden. In his work Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown) (1769), he told the story of how an innocent gift ended up leading him to bankruptcy.

In this book, Denis Diderot says that receiving a beautiful scarlet bathrobe as a gift brought unexpected consequences to his life. At first, the philosopher was delighted with his new possession. However, he soon realized that the rest of his things were far from being so elegant.

Thus, Diderot tells in his book, that he soon began to replace his old possessions. He changed his old wooden chair for a comfortable armchair with a leather seat, he replaced the paintings in his house with much more expensive ones. He kept spending more and more money on acquiring elegant objects that matched his new bathrobe.

Almost without realizing it, the man ended up spending all his money on possessions that he didn’t truly want or need. This is the main example of what the Diderot effect can do to us if we let it control our decisions. However, is there something we can do something to fight it?

denis diderot

Fighting against the Diderot effect

Below, you’ll find several keys to avoid the worst consequences of the Diderot Effect.

Realize what’s going on

It’s harder to pay attention to our thought biases when we actually know what we’re doing. Therefore, before making an expensive purchase, stop to think if you really want or need the object in question.

Analyze the costs of your future purchases

Maybe each object by itself doesn’t cost that much. However, how much money would you spend if you bought everything you wanted at the moment? Instead of going crazy shopping each time, it’s much more useful to calculate in advance how much you can spend and what you really want to buy.

Choose your purchases for their utility instead of their status

In general, the most important thing to keep in mind when purchasing something is knowing if it’s truly useful for us. It’s very common to want to deceive people by our appearance and possessions. Nevertheless, unless you have a lot of money to spare, it’s usually a very irrational thing to do.

In brief, some of us may have a hard time keeping the Diderot effect at bay. However, if you’re attentive to what you’re doing and stop worrying so much about impressing others, you’ll soon realize that you no longer need to make hundreds of new purchases simply because of the status they provide.

“Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.”

-Denis Diderot-