Understanding the Diderot effect to overcome overspending


I am neither a psychologist nor a philosopher. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the goals we pursue, the things we own, and the items we buy.

I find it to be a fascinating study of human behavior.

There are many reasons why we buy more things than we need, often spending too much to get there.

Certain motivations are imposed on us by society. Other causes arise from our own internal motivations. Either way, achieving a healthy understanding of why we buy what we do is a laudable quest.

This is one of the reasons why I find the Diderot effect and its link to consumer goods such an interesting phenomenon. This motivation for overconsumption, originally noted in the 18th century by a French philosopher named Denis Diderot, is still common among us.

The simplest description of the Diderot effect is: “the introduction of a new possession into a consumer’s existence will often result in a spiraling process of consumption.

In other words, buying one new item often results in buying another. We can see this unfolding in small ways:

Recently my wife took my daughter to school to buy new clothes. Also on his shopping list was a new backpack. After seeing her choices, my daughter chose one. But this new backpack doesn’t match the lunch bag she used last year – and so, almost immediately, the “new lunch bag” was added to the shopping list, even though her backpack lunch from last year was still working very well.

The introduction of a new item (the backpack) created a desire for additional consumption. This is a silly example and not particularly expensive, but which perfectly illustrates how the Diderot effect influences our consumer purchases.

Of course, there are more expensive examples of the Diderot effect all around us:

  • We buy a new shirt or dress… and immediately start looking for new matching shoes, instead of keeping a minimalist wardrobe.
  • We’re bringing home a new sofa… and suddenly the end tables in our living room look old and shabby, in need of replacement.
  • We’re buying a new car… and soon start spending money on car washes, more expensive gasoline, or a parking pass.
  • We’re moving into a new home… and taking the opportunity to replace our existing bedroom set with a new one.

In each circumstance, the reality is that we already have enough shoes and our end tables and bedroom furniture used to work great before. But because something new had been introduced into our lives, we were immediately drawn into a spiraling process of consumption.

Denis Diderot observed and noted this phenomenon in an essay entitled “Regrets that I parted with my old dressing gown.

In the fictional story, he receives a stylish new dress from his friend. Upon receiving the dress, Denis notices that all of her other possessions are starting to look dull and faded compared to her. He’s starting to replace them, all of them, even the art on the walls. And at the end of the story, Denis notes: “I was the absolute master of my old dressing gown, but I became the slave of my new one.”

Diderot explains quite well how new consumption often leads to additional consumption. But more than that, he argues that we start to identify with our possessions and look for new things that fit our specific mold.

Buying clothes, he would say, is rarely about the functional use of clothes. Instead, buying clothes (and everything in between) represents an opportunity for self-expression.

But for this piece, I’m more interested in the idea of ​​how over-accumulation leads to over-accumulation. How purchases lead to more unplanned purchases. Because only after you understand the principle can you start to break its cycle.

How then can we overcome the Diderot effect in our lives and resist this pattern of unnecessary consumption?

Let me offer a few thoughts:

1. Become aware of what is going on. Observe when you are drawn into spiraling consumption not because you really need an item, but only because something new has been introduced.

2. Analyze and forecast the total cost of future purchases. A store can have a great sale on a new outfit, but if the new outfit requires you to buy a new pair of shoes or a matching handbag, it becomes a more expensive purchase than originally thought.

3. Avoid unnecessary new purchases. Realize that the Diderot effect is an important force and that it is very difficult to overcome it. You might avoid replacing those end tables at first, but eventually, at some point, you’re going to break down and buy new ones that better match the new sofa.

There are times when we have a legitimate need to buy new things. But the best way to overcome the Diderot effect is to never let it get over you in the first place.

4. Remember that possessions do not define you. The abundance of life is not in the things you have. Your assets don’t define you or your success no matter what marketers try to tell you.

5. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Stop trying to impress others with your business and start trying to impress them with your life.

Notice the Diderot effect in your own life. Soon, when you start to recognize it around you, it will become a cause of less unnecessary consumption in your home and wallet (assuming that wallet already matches your purse).


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