When I relocated to a new city, I moved from the apartment where I had lived for seven years to a newer one that had been better maintained. When I started unpacking my belongings, I was struck by how shabby my stuff looked in comparison and overcome with the impulse to buy new things for this beautiful apartment.
Thankfully, before I pulled out my credit card and started a buying frenzy, I remembered a short essay I’d read in a college philosophy class and realized I had fallen prey to the Diderot effect.
What Is the Diderot Effect
Named for the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, this effect describes the phenomenon in which the introduction of a new purchase or gift makes your existing possessions look dingy, old, or unexciting, thus sparking a spiraling pattern of consumption.
Say you buy a new couch, and you start looking at your existing area rug and side tables with a critical eye. So you replace those, and now your whole living room looks newer — at which point, the bedroom furniture starts to look outdated.
The Diderot effect is all around us, and it influences our purchase choices across all categories: the clothes we wear, the items we use each day, even our cars and houses.
So what is the Diderot effect, how does it work, and what can we do to avoid falling victim to the endless cycle of consumption and spending it provokes?
The Origin of the Diderot Effect
A French philosopher active during the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot was perhaps best known as the co-founder of the Encyclopedie, a general encyclopedia published between 1751 and 1772.
Diderot also wrote widely, publishing a number of essays on a range of topics, including “Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune” in 1769. This is the work in which he describes the phenomenon that would later be coined “the Diderot effect.”
The story goes that Diderot was either gifted or purchased a new dressing gown, which prompted the now-famous essay in which he laments this acquisition. “My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me,” Diderot writes.
But once he has the beautiful new robe, everything around him starts to look shabby in comparison, including his physical appearance underneath the robe. He feels the new robe demands that his other belongings keep up with the same high standards, so he begins replacing his old possessions with new ones.
Out go the modest prints he had tacked to the wall, to be replaced with framed paintings instead. He replaces his old straw chair with a new leather one and acquires a fancy inlaid armoire. The rate of accumulation snowballs from there, until he finds himself with debts he must pay by continuing to work and write.
In his essay, he warns readers, “Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”
The Diderot Effect in Modern Consumerism
Consciously or not, we express ourselves through our possessions, whether they’re brand-new luxury goods or well-loved items passed down through several generations.
Possessions aren’t the only way to tell the world who we are, of course, but they are one of the subtle ways we convey our sense of self to others, often without needing to say a thing. How many times have you tried on an article of clothing or looked at a piece of furniture and thought, “This just isn’t me”?
When we buy things, we want them to fit into our existing tastes and standards. However, when we bring something new into our lives, we can’t help comparing it to the things we already own, which makes us look at the old items with a more critical eye.
Before you know it, the purchase of a new couch leads you to replace everything in the room, from the furniture to the light fixtures, in an effort to make it all “match.” What started as a new sofa becomes a spiral of consumption with no end in sight.
How to Avoid the Diderot Effect
You can probably identify examples of the Diderot effect in your own life. It’s common, especially in our consumer-driven culture.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways to avoid falling prey to the Diderot effect and stop the spending snowball before it picks up too much speed. Here are a few tactics to try.
1. Reduce Your Exposure to Temptations
The less exposure you have to brand-new things, the less likely you are to desire them. No one who lives in modern society can escape advertising entirely; marketing is simply too ubiquitous. But you can do everything in your power to reduce the temptation.
Stay away from physical stores, which are deliberately laid out to trick you into spending more. Avoid online shopping and unsubscribe from marketing newsletters and store emails. Cut down on the amount of junk mail you get and stop following shops and brands on social media.
If you don’t see as many ads or items beckoning for you to buy them, it’s much easier to control your desire for newer, fancier, more expensive stuff.
2. Put the Brakes on Your Consumption
If you have to tell yourself no each time you encounter something you might want to buy, you’ll quickly exhaust your reserves of self-discipline. Instead, set parameters for yourself and your family so you only have to make a single decision.
For example, you might decide you’re done with purchasing clothing new. You can buy secondhand and vintage items, and if you can’t find exactly what you want in those marketplaces, you simply don’t buy anything.
This way, you’re not saying no to fast fashion or retail stores over and over again, every time you walk past one on the street or get a tempting flyer in the mail. You simply decided to say no once and never look back.
Think about how you can impose a similar restraint or rule for your spending in other categories. Maybe it’s as simple as not buying any new furniture or household goods until your credit card debt is paid off, or doing a no-spend month or pantry challenge with your family.
Perhaps you choose a limit for your shopping budget, and once you hit that limit, that’s it for the month — the envelope system is a great way to do this.
3. Lend and Borrow
Instead of buying new stuff, borrow what you need and lend what you have. This strategy can sometimes take a little more effort, but the payoff can be tremendous, both in the cost savings you’ll see and in the relationships you’ll be able to forge with your friends and neighbors.
From lawn mowers to power tools to camping equipment, explore all the ways that you can borrow instead of buy, and be equally willing to lend what you own. Host a clothing swap with your friends. See if your local public library, church, or community center has a kitchen- or tool-lending library. Join a Buy Nothing group or other frugality group in your area, and talk to your friends and neighbors about how to pool your resources.
Borrowing not only saves you money, but it also prevents you from falling into the trap that Diderot did. Rather than buying new items that make the old ones look less exciting, you see these things for what they are — utilitarian items to be borrowed, used, and then returned to their owner — rather than a reflection on you and your tastes.
4. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
Get into the habit of making what you already own last as long as possible.
Instead of replacing a piece of electronic equipment when it breaks, see if it can be repaired. Instead of buying your child a new backpack every school year, have them reuse last year’s or switch with a sibling or friend.
Instead of buying a whole new wardrobe for a new job, refashion or repurpose a few key pieces to quell your desire for something new and match your current aesthetic.
6. Match New and Existing Items
When you’re purchasing items for your home, pay close attention to the items you already own. Look for colors, materials, and designs that fit well with your current stuff instead of feeling at odds or out of place.
Go into a purchase expecting to own each item for a long time, and only purchase things that will fit in with — rather than stand out from — what you already have.
The same goes for your wardrobe. Look for pieces that work with your current clothing and accessories so you can easily mix and match rather than feeling compelled to buy an entirely new wardrobe.
You can still introduce new elements into your style if you want to make a change, but do it gradually rather than overhauling everything in one fell swoop.
7. Follow the “One In, One Out” Rule
One surefire way to avoid thoughtlessly bringing new things into your house is to stick to a “one in, one out” rule. By this rule, every time you bring something new into your home, you must get rid of something else.
Don’t allow yourself to simply set the old item out by the curb and forget about it. Instead, try to sell it on Craigslist, figure out how to donate it to a secondhand store like the Salvation Army, or give it to a friend or family member.
This is more work than simply putting something out for the trash, but that’s the point. By creating a little bit of work for yourself, you’ll be better able to resist the urge to buy new things except for when you really need them. This makes it harder to simply whip out your credit card and buy your way to a whole new living room while kicking the old stuff to the curb.
8. Reframe How You See Physical Objects and Symbols of Wealth
When you see a big new house or shiny car, instead of feeling envious, remind yourself of all the expenses that come with maintaining those pricier items. A bigger house means bigger expenses, from higher monthly payments to higher heating and cooling costs.
A luxury car not only costs a fortune but also requires costly insurance and upkeep. Remind yourself that living more modestly frees up your money for important financial goals, such as saving for retirement or reaching financial independence.
Rather than striving to acquire bigger and “better” things, practice gratitude for what you already have. Consider this famous quote from Epicurus: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
What are the things you once hoped for that now you take for granted? Make a list of those and revisit it the next time you find yourself wanting to redecorate or upgrade.
By employing these tactics before my instinct got the better of me, I was able to keep my new house purchases to a minimum and avoid going over budget. I bought only the things I really needed and picked objects that fit within my current aesthetic.
Using Craigslist and relying on carpentry and other DIY skills to retrofit existing storage solutions and decor, I made my apartment homey and comfortable without falling victim to the Diderot effect.