The Diderot Effect

For all his life, the French philosopher, Denis Diderot, was a poor, but eminent person in French society. For most of his life, he lived in poverty. In 1765, at the age of 52, his fortunes turned. The Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, bought his library.

With his newfound fortune, Diderot had enough money to spare. He bought a new scarlet robe. This robe was beautiful, but there was a problem – it didn’t fit in with his other, more common possessions. In his words, there was ‘no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty’ between his robe and the rest of his belongings.

Denis Diderot, discoverer of the Diderot Effect
Diderot in a robe, as depicted by Louis-Michael van Loo

Diderot soon ended up making several other purchases. He bought a new rug from Damascus. He decorated his house with sculptures, a better kitchen table and a new mirror. He replaced his straw chair by one made of leather.

The Diderot Effect is a phenomenon in behavioural science, that owes its name to this anecdote. It states how obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more things. The Diderot Effect explains how pop-stars and lottery winners, who receive a windfall, can soon exhaust it and fall into debt. It also explains how adding an expensive sofa to our living room also ends up attracting other purchases – like a new coffee-table, coffee-table books and chairs to plop around it.

Denis Diderot’s example demonstrates our tendency to spiral into buying things that we don’t really need. And it often starts with one expensive gift or purchase.

Inspiration: James Clear

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s