The Diderot Effect

The Diderot Effect

I hope you are all staying safe and healthy.

For the third edition of Doing More with Our Money, we’re going to discuss a social phenomenon that I suspect everyone has encountered many times, although may not have put a name to it – The Diderot Effect.

Last year, I decided I needed a new suit. Putting aside the fact that I don’t wear suits all that often (especially during the Covid-19 lockdown!), I wanted one and I wanted one that fit perfectly as my suit size had changed.

I found my new suit with the help of a friend (thanks Kate!). It’s beautiful, and I look good in it! When you buy a new suit, the shirts you already own just aren’t good enough; So, I bought four new ones. Also, you have to buy new shoes with a new suit, don’t you? And, you can’t buy new shoes without also getting a matching belt!

My planned purchase of a new suit spiraled into purchasing practically a new wardrobe, and I spent twice as much as I had intended! I did this even though I am very familiar with the social phenomenon known as The Diderot effect.

Me in my new suit

What is The Diderot Effect? Coined in 1988 by anthropologist and scholar Grant McCracken, The Diderot effect was named after French writer/philosopher Denis Diderot. Diderot described the phenomenon in his 1769 (yes, 250 years ago!) essay ‘Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown’.

In the essay he describes getting a fancy new robe. He mentions how his “old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me. A straw chair, a wooden table” – among other things, but after getting his new robe, “all is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.”

Diderot goes on to buy a new leather chair to replace the straw chair, a “precious bureau” to replace the wooden table, and several other things to spruce up his place so it would better fit with his new robe. He actually drives himself into debt with these purchases!

McCracken’s view of the Diderot Effect also touches on how consumer’s sense of identity is tied to the goods they purchase, although we won’t be covering that in today’s discussion.

Most of us experience The Diderot Effect not just with the purchase of goods, but also in other aspects of our lives.

I encountered it again a couple of months ago, when I decided I would finally paint my basement.

After finishing, it looked great! I was super-pleased with myself, especially as I am not particularly handy.

Of course, every time I walked into the kitchen, it was very noticeable that it also needed a new paint job – to the point that it actually caused me some angst.

So… I painted the kitchen…Then… the upstairs hallway!

Now I’m dissatisfied with the living room and dining room!

When will this end!?

The paint I used to paint practically the entire house!

Fortunately, the cost of paint isn’t going to put me into debt. The time and effort spent (not to mention the angst!) was not ideal though.

Even with my familiarity with the Diderot effect, I could probably stand to be more vigilant in how my own purchases or actions can result in dissatisfaction with what I already have, leading to further purchases or actions.

Besides my clear lack of self control, what is the learning here as it relates to Doing More With our Money?

It’s simple really! We all just need to be more conscious of the potential impact of the Diderot effect before we purchase (or paint!) something.

If you are about to buy a new 4K TV, you may need several new accessories for it, like new cables, a wall bracket, etc.

Odds are you will recognize the need for some of those accessories prior to the TV purchase.

You also need to be aware that after you set up your fancy new TV, you might find yourself unsatisfied with some of the things surrounding or relating to it.

Whatever the power the Diderot Effect holds over you, you don’t have to trade in your mangy mutt for a sleek beautiful greyhound!

Don’t do it – they are both beautiful dogs!

I’m not saying don’t buy the new TV, or suit, or paint that room, or anything else.

Just make sure that before you do, take the time to think about and budget for the cost of anything else you might find yourself buying.

The more we understand the psychological triggers or social phenomenon that drive our purchases like The Diderot Effect, the more we are able to make conscious decisions of whether to proceed or not.

This allows us to do more with our money!

Have you recently encountered the Diderot Effect?

Message me about how it impacted your purchase or other aspects of your life!

As always, I’d also love some feedback on any aspect of this blog!

Thanks for reading!

Mike

References:

https://iainbamforth.com/2017/03/12/my-old-dressing-gown/

McCracken, Grant Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988. Chapter: Diderot Unities and the Diderot Effect pages 120, 121

8 Replies to “The Diderot Effect”

  1. Yes, and marketing companies know all about Western “consumerist culture and behaviour,” which aligns well with your explanation. Thanks for posting this Mike, and BTW, you look great on that suit!

  2. Thanks Mike! Although this does not come as a surprise or news to most people, I believe when it has a name and is ‘exposed’, the average person – me included – will start factoring in this cost, just like we do with PST & GST. It certainly allows for accurate decision making and minimizes regrets. Thanks for bringing it to light!

    [Who’s the guy in the suit? I know it says that it’s you but I don’t believe it!]

    1. lol thanks for the feedback, Barb! Taking that pic in the suit is the first time I’ve worn it in 8 months…which makes the purchase seem that much more silly!

  3. Hi Mike, I know you’ll cover it later, but I have something to say re: “how consumer’s sense of identity is tied to the goods they purchase”. It reminds me of the Shopaholic Series. Every time the main character was being tempted by something expensive she painted a picture in her head about herself wearing the item around town and how people would perceive her. “I’ll forever be remembered as the girl with the beautiful scarf”. She wasn’t buying the scarf, she was buying the fantasy.

    As for the The Diderot Effect, they have it even in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales! “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter” described a king who was presented with a mortar made of gold, and immediately wanted the pestle, which eventually led to him getting a new queen lol

    1. Great points, thanks Louisa! After I first learned about The Diderot Effect, I started seeing it occur everywhere!

  4. This really makes sense. I got a new TV over Christmas, but obviously needed a new TV stand for it. Now I can’t look at the couch without thinking that it doesn’t match the rest of the living room. The struggle is real.
    Thanks for putting a name to the madness Mike!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Keasha! Be careful when you get a new bottles of scotch too…If you add a nice bottle of Macallan 18 to your collection, that Jamo might not work for you anymore 🙂

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