The Diderot Effect term was coined by 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot who wrote the essay, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown”. In the essay, he talks about receiving a beautiful new dressing gown as a gift. He loves it, but then he realizes it makes all of his other things look like crap. So what does he do? He goes out and buys new things. Diderot writes:
I was 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.
First world problems, I know. But essentially, this is how lifestyle inflation happens. We get used to having a certain fancy thing, and then we feel compelled to match the rest of our lifestyle to that thing. Most of us have been there.
Simply being aware that this phenomenon exists will probably go a long way toward preventing it. But over at Becoming Minimalist, writer Joshua Becker has a few other suggestions. Here are some of my favorite:
Analyze and predict the full cost of future purchases.
A store may be having a great sale on a new outfit—but if the new outfit compels you to buy a new pair of shoes or handbag to match, it just became a more expensive purchase than originally assumed.
Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
Stop trying to impress others with your stuff and start trying to impress them with your life.
Remind yourself that possessions do not define you.
Abundance of life is not found in the things that you own. Your possessions do not define you or your success—no matter what marketers will try to tell you.
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.
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.”
1. Law of Mechanical Repair – After your hands become coated with grease, your nose will begin to itch and you’ll have to pee.
2. Law of Gravity – Any tool, nut, bolt, screw, when dropped, will roll to the least accessible corner.
3. Law of Probability -The probability of being watched is directly proportional to the stupidity of your act
4. Law of Random Numbers – If you dial a wrong number, you never get a busy signal and someone always answers.
5. Law of the Alibi – If you tell the boss you were late for work because you had a flat tire, the very next morning you will have a flat tire.
6. Variation Law – If you change lines (or traffic lanes), the one you were in will always move faster than the one you are in now (works every time).
7. Law of the Bath – When the body is fully immersed in water, the telephone rings.
8. Law of Close Encounters -The probability of meeting someone you know increases dramatically when you are with someone you don’t want to be seen with.
9. Law of the Result – When you try to prove to someone that a machine won’t work, it will.
10. Law of bio mechanics – The severity of the itch is inversely proportional to the reach.
11.. Law of the Theater and Hockey Arena – At any event, the people whose seats are furthest from the aisle, always arrive last. They are the ones who will leave their seats several times to go for food, beer, or the toilet and who leave early before the end of the performance or the game is over. The folks in the aisle seats come early, never move once, have long gangly legs or big bellies, and stay to the bitter end of the performance. The aisle people also are very surly folk.
12. The Coffee Law – As soon as you sit down to a cup of hot coffee, your boss will ask you to do something which will last until the coffee is cold.
13. Murphy’s Law of Lockers – If there are only two people in a locker room, they will have adjacent lockers.
14. Law of Physical Surfaces – The chances of an open-faced jelly sandwich landing face down on a floor, are directly correlated to the newness and cost of the carpet or rug.
15. Law of Logical Argument – Anything is possible if you don’t know what you are talking about.
16. Brown’s Law of Physical Appearance – If the clothes fit, they’re ugly.
17. Oliver’s Law of Public Speaking – A closed mouth gathers no feet.
18. Wilson’s Law of Commercial Marketing Strategy – As soon as you find a product that you really like, they will stop making it.
19. Doctors’ Law – If you don’t feel well, make an appointment to go to the doctor, by the time you get there you’ll feel better. But don’t make an appointment, and you’ll stay sick.