The Diderot Effect

The Diderot Effect is inspired by 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot’s run-­in with wealth and how he met with problems when he found that his new scarlet robe did not blend in with the poverty ­stricken surroundings of his home.

Denis Diderot as depicted by Louis-Michel van Loo in 1767. In this painting Diderot is wearing a robe similar to the one that prompted his famous essay on the Diderot Effect. Source:
Denis Diderot as depicted by Louis-Michel van Loo in 1767. In this painting Diderot is wearing a robe similar to the one that prompted his famous essay on the Diderot Effect.

The Diderot Effect

In the 18th century, a French writer named Denis Diderot received a gift: a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. [Source: Consumption: Disciplinary approaches to consumption by Daniel Miller (page 121)].

The fabric was gorgeous. The colors were rich. The craftsmanship was spectacular.

Diderot immediately threw his tattered old gown away. He didn’t need it anymore. His new gown was breathtaking.

Of course, he needed to make a few extra purchases to accommodate that gown. In the past, if one of his books was covered with dust, he’d simply use his old gown as a rag. But he couldn’t wipe away dust with his beautiful new gown. He’d need to buy some dust rags.

When there was excess ink on his pen, he used his old gown to wipe it clear. He couldn’t do that with the new gown. He’d need to buy handkerchiefs, or perhaps he’d need better pens.

But those are small purchases, right? A small price to pay to maintain such a beautiful gown … right?

Diderot began to notice that the rest of his home looked shabby in comparison to the gown. His drapes were threadbare and faded, in contract to the rich colors of the gown. He’d need to replace them.

He often sat in a straw chair. He didn’t want the gown to snag on the fibers. His gown looked silly on such a cheap old chair, anyway. He bought a chair upholstered in leather, with colors that suited the scarlet tones of his gown.

He spent most of his day sitting at his desk, wearing the gown. But the gown didn’t match the old desk. It would be the 18th­century equivalent of wearing a crisp Armani suit while sitting at a beat-­up desk. So Diderot purchased an expensive new desk.

Once he had that desk, though, his paintings looked amateurish and faded. He needed more exquisite art on his walls, art that matched the desk and drapes.

Soon, Diderot plunged into debt.

Now fast forward to 21st century

We can spot similar behaviors in many other areas of life:

  • Buying a new mobile and then spending money on screen guard, even when the mobile comes with gorilla glass display.
  • After buying a new shirt and now you start disliking your old pants.
  • You buy a new couch and suddenly you’re questioning the layout of your entire living room. Those chairs? That coffee table? That rug? They all got to go.

Inspired by his research on The Diderot Effect, writer and researcher on behavioral psychology, James Clear, explores why we tend to overspend on things we do not need, sharing useful tips on how we can overcome this syndrome.

We have a tendency to want more, we are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify, to eliminate, to reduce. Our natural inclination is always to accumulate, to add, to upgrade, and to build upon.

So What Happened to Diderot?
Diderot wrote an essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown” outlining his regret. His beautiful scarlet gown had become a curse, not a blessing. He missed his faded, tattered robe, he wrote. Its folds fit comfortably around his body. Its dust­ and­ ink stains reflected the life of “a writer, a man who works.”

“I was absolute master of my old dressing gown,” Diderot said, “but I have become a slave to my new one.”

In Diderot’s words, “Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”

(Opulence: great wealth or luxuriousness)


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