Don’t Fall Prey to the “Diderot Effect”


How could one purchase lead to a man’s financial ruin?

In 1751, French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot published the first volume of his Encyclopédie, a general encyclopedia that became famous for representing the thought of the Enlightenment. Despite this significant undertaking, Diderot’s financial situation did not improve. He continued to live a modest life, and when Diderot was unable to afford his soon to be married daughter’s dowry, word of his financial troubles began to circulate.

Fortunately, help would come from an unexpected source – a Russian empress. Upon learning of Diderot’s monetary woes, in 1763, Catherine the Great agreed to buy his extensive library and appoint him caretaker of it until his death. She provided him with a generous annual salary, and suddenly at the age of 52, Diderot became a very wealthy man.

Soon after Diderot’s windfall, he purchased a new scarlet robe. Little did he know how this single purchase would precipitate a spiral of financial waste. Diderot adored his new robe, lovingly placing the moniker of “my sumptuous scarlet” onto it. Yet, something was wrong. One evening, as Diderot sat on his tattered straw desk chair, he became cognizant of the glaring disparity between his new beloved possession and the rest of his common objects. In Diderot’s mind, the disparity was too much.

Diderot immediately set out to remedy the problem. He purchased a sumptuous armchair upholstered in Moroccan leather. But he did not stop there. He replaced his old desk with an expensive new writing table and purchased a rug from Damascus as a fitting replacement for the tattered one that adorned the floor. Piece by piece, Diderot replaced every object in his home until it reflected the beauty of his scarlet robe.

Diderot had spent his fortune and became mired in debt. In his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” he writes: “I was absolute master of my old dressing gown, 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 a strain.”

The “Diderot Effect”

These reactive purchases have become known as the “Diderot Effect.” The term was coined by anthropologist Grant McCracken in 1988 and describes how obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more and more things. Before you know it, you have purchased new shoes and a handbag to match your new dress or you find yourself shopping for new workout clothes, better earbuds and comfier running shoes after signing up for a new gym membership. Few of us are immune to the Diderot Effect.

But what’s wrong with wanting better things? Nothing, if you truly need them. Today, we are bombarded with advertisements promoting products that target our infatuation with novelty. From gourmet food to premium appliances and brand name clothing, these items deliver short-term happiness at a considerable financial cost. Worse still, our natural inclination to accumulate, to upgrade and to build upon guarantees that today’s luxuries become tomorrow’s necessities. All of this makes saving money and paying down debts far more difficult as our sense of self-worth and identity become closely intertwined with the objects we acquire.

So how do you avoid falling prey to the Diderot Effect and in turn reclaim control over your spending habits? You focus on the things that truly matter to you of course. We often forget that wanting is akin to other emotions we experience on a daily basis. It comes and it goes. We can choose to follow it or ignore it. It is important to understand that wanting is nothing more than an option your mind provides you. It’s not an order you must follow. The next time you find yourself deliberating on whether you should upgrade your smartphone and sign up for a more expensive contract or put that extra money in a high-interest savings account to build an emergency fund, ask yourself: “Will this purchase truly enrich my life or will it delay me from achieving my long-term financial goals?”

3 Strategies to Master the Diderot Effect

1) Impose Limits on Your Spending: Creating self-imposed spending limits is not easy, but if you remind yourself why you are creating the limit and imagine the unnecessary stress that will result from excess spending, it becomes much easier to stick to them.

2) Buy Items That Complement Your Possessions: When buying new goods, why not purchase ones that beautifully integrate with your existing possessions. Look for clothes that work well with your wardrobe and buy furnishings that complement your existing décor.

3) Reduce Your Exposure: The easiest way to combat the feeling of wanting is to limit your exposure to advertising. Unsubscribe from commercial emails, eliminate subscriptions to magazines that trigger your desire to shop and install internet ad blockers on your computer. These simple steps will help you avoid falling prey to mindless consumption.

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