The Diderot Effect

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for” -Epicurus, Greek Philosopher (341 BC – 270 BC)

I found this quote when stumbling through the web the other day, and it got me thinking. a while back I remembered reading about a psychological effect that describes this quote to a tee.

Please let me explain.

Have you ever purchased something, something you really wanted, only to discover that it made the rest of your stuff seem a bit old and dated?

Rather than accepting some variance in the style against your older possessions, have you then been tempted to upgrade your old and dated stuff?

This is called the ‘Diderot Effect’, named after the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–84) who first described the effect in an essay titled “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown“. In this essay he describes how a gift of a brand new scarlet dressing gown leads to unexpected results, nearly making him bankrupt in the process. 

How do you become bankrupt just by receiving a gift of a new, sleek and beautiful scarlet dressing gown (aka smoking jacket)? Well the effect kind of tricks you like this. Have you ever bought nice new shirt, and thought that your old pants now look shabby against it? So you go and buy new pants to match, and shoes, and a handbag, and a belt, etc. You get the picture, right.

 The same can be said for putting a new piece of furniture into a room of existing pieces. Soon you are shopping at the mall or high street to buy new furniture and fittings to make the original purchase look at home probably to the detriment of your bank account.

The same thing happened to Diderot or so he wrote. He thought that his new robe looked so nice, that he thought that all the stuff in his apartment looked drab and ordinary against it. So he bought lots and lots of new and expensive stuff to spruce up his abode, with a big hit on his financial accounts. In the end he had this to say,

“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.”

Between 2001 and 2006, I too was a victim to the Diderot Effect. I would buy a new stereo system, only to think not long afterwards that I needed a new media player or DVD player to go with it. The old one was in good working order so I was behaving irrationally. When I bought a new computer, I would also upgrade the display, even though the one I had was perfectly okay. Same goes with a lawn mower that I had, which just needed a little TLC, but I dumped it and bought a new one. My old petrol (gas) can was old and rusty, but still functional, but I bought a new one, and threw the other away with the old mower. Yes friends, I was wasteful as well.
These are just a few example of being sucked in by consumerism for consumerism’s sake. Today I would call it the ‘steak knife effect’ after all of those infomercials that start off flogging you one product, but then throw in a whole bunch of other stuff (that you never wanted anyway) just to justify the deal in your mind!

It has taken me a few years since my green epiphany, and a lot of thought after reading a book by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss titled Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, but I am no longer influenced by this effect or most advertising for that matter. I only replace what I need, when the old item is beyond repair, and only after I have gone without it for a few weeks to see if I can get by without it.

Case in point, my clothes dryer that broke a few months back. You can read about how we adapted in the absence of this so called laundry necessity on my post titled “Ditching the Clothes Dryer“. This is a classic example of rethinking and changing my behaviours for the better.

My warning to you all is beware the Diderot Effect and get off the consumerist treadmill which will help you stop the upward creep of material desire. Knowing how much is enough is a powerful skill to possess in this, the age of rampant consumerism.

Despite what advertisements tell us, stuff just doesn’t satisfy our desire for meaning, and it is a very poor substitute for your sense of self worth within a manipulative and demeaning society. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but it feels to me that consumerism in western society is totally out of control for all the wrong reasons.

So to sum it all up, treasure what you have. It will save your bank balance, and might just save a few resources in this ever declining, resource strapped, finite planet of ours.

Have you succumbed to this effect and regretted it later on? How did it make you feel?


  1. Anonymous says

    Hi Gavin
    I have just stumbled across your post, how wonderful! I look forward to following you, thank you for the awesome blog.
    Regards, Alison

  2. says

    A timely post, Gavin. All things need to be cleaned, repaired, stored, insured, etc, etc. Think about this before a new purchase.
    There is also the human brain to contend with. We tend to think that if we have more and better “stuff”, we can do more and better things. This was the gist of the conversation with my work mate the other day. We both have pretty large quantities of tools for our respective hobbies, but we both seem to get less done than when we just had the basics. I used to sew all my family’s clothing and home decorating items with a simple sewing machine and an iron and ironing board. Now I have a room full of gadgets and get less done than I did before….Hmmmm….

  3. says

    I have found that as I am buying 2nd hand furniture now, it doesn’t seem to invoke the feeling of need to buy new anything else. as they normally need a bit of work, ie extra cleaning and sand and painting. As long as you aren’t buying everything from some one else shabby chic, it seems to be evolving. I am hoping it means that it looks comfortable.

    it is becoming ingrained now. if I buy something I have to store it somewhere. which means I have to make space for it. We have a small 1930’s house. inter-war houses weren’t built with the idea of housing lots of things. more to get a house over your head when things were scarce. My wardrobe is 3 1/2 foot wide. that is it. I have to be careful with purchases.

  4. Anonymous says

    I haven’t been much of a shopper for quite a few years now, but this Diderot Effect nearly got to me last year when we purchased a new couch.
    Our old one was nearly 30 years old so I didn’t know that couch styles in Canada had changed until we got this one home and it was much taller than the old one,so the end table and the lamp on the table was too low.
    I actually toyed with the idea of buying new tables until I came to my senses and added some books under the lamp, I think it looks very ecletic now :)

  5. says

    Abso-freakin-lutely! In fact, I have been feeling this way a fair bit recently. I’m hosting a party soon for a friend and inviting a bunch of people I don’t know all that well. I’ve been thinking about how much I “need” to fix up my place, things I “should” buy so that essentially people I don’t know will think better of me. Things I inf fact don’t “need” at all. Stupid, I know, but its a real feeling that I need to talk myself out of. Thanks for the post, it was very timely.

  6. says

    I have been complaining that my mobile is old and with mother’s day coming up I thought I might ask for a new mobile with a few more bells and whistles than my current one. This was the plan until I read your post Gavin. I just switched the phone on and it is holding the charge well and still in good working order. Thanks Gavin for reminding me to not be wasteful.

  7. says

    You might not believe this, but when I first came across that quote by Epicurus I printed it out on an A4 piece of paper and stuck on the wall in our study!

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