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Understanding the Diderot Effect: How to Avoid Reactive Purchasing

Have you ever purchased something like a piece of furniture or a rug, only to notice that your existing furnishings now look out-of-place? So, you go out and buy more new furniture or accessories, upgrading your perfectly usable existing furniture and spending beyond your budget.

It can happen, too, with other items, like purchasing a car and having to customize it, or buying an iPad and having to get that leather cover, the Apple Pen, and Bluetooth keyboard.

Suddenly, you become anxious over having spent significantly more than you intended or that your budget allowed.

There are countless reasons we purchase more stuff than we actually need. Many reasons are tied to societal morays. However, some reasons involve our own internal motivations, like expressing ourselves through the things we acquire.

One of the first individuals to observe this behavior of purchasing beyond our means or budget is Denis Diderot, putting his insightful observations down on paper and coining the phrase the Diderot Effect.

Understanding the Diderot Effect

Denis Diderot was a 18th-century French philosopher whose then claim-to-fame was authoring the Encyclopédie, the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the time. An admirer of his work, Catherine the Great of Russia, generously offered him today’s equivalent of $50,000 to buy his library, catapulting Diderot instantly from poverty to great wealth.

Shortly afterward, Diderot acquired a new scarlet dressing robe. Upon looking at the beautiful robe, he noticed that his furnishings were less-than-adequate to sit upon with such a fine robe. So, Diderot bought a new leather chair, which prompted the purchase of a new rug from Damascus, new curtains, more furniture, sculptures, and a beautiful mirror to hang above the hearth. Having now thoroughly tricked out his home, Diderot acquired something he did not intend: massive debt.

Later in life, Denis Diderot writes about his reactive purchasing in an essay “Regrets Upon Parting With My Old Dressing Gown.” He makes the following observations:

  1. Sometimes we, as consumers, make purchases to satisfy an expression of our self-identity.
  2. Sometimes the purchases we make are so great that we are driven to purchase more great things in a downward spiral of over consumption.

These observations, known as the Diderot effect, can be summed up in his own words:

“I was the 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.”

Overcoming the Diderot Effect

What can you do to ensure that you are not falling prey to the Diderot Effect with your purchases? Let’s take a look at some solutions:

  1. Understand why you are making a new purchase – is there truly a need present for the purchase you are making? Or, are you buying out of some other motivation, like seeking status or elevating your self-worth? Has something new and shiny been introduced into your environment? Knowing answers to these questions will help you determine if the Diderot Effect is coming into play and what is driving your purchase decision.
  2. Be aware of outside influences – just as you are now aware of the Diderot Effect, so too are marketers aware of this phenomenon in spending and how to use it to their advantage. Their job is to get you to buy and spend more through making you aware of other options and upgrades, or getting you to identify with their product. Know when you are being unduly influenced by marketing.
  3. Predict the cost of future purchases – buying a new suit or dress today may lead you to buy new shoes and accessories in the future to match. This is a form of chain (reactive) purchasing. You are replacing already existing and useful items in your possession at a greater expense to you.

When it comes to consumerism and the potential negative effects it has on your mental health, self-awareness and knowledge can be key in reducing anxiety and rumination caused by overspending and overconsumption.

Consider ways the Diderot Effect has played out in your life and plan out future purchases knowing your motivation behind them.