Given all the lockdowns as of late, I’m sure you can all relate to the tremendous surge in online shopping. Receiving parcels fills us with joy until we move on to the next, bigger, better, and more exciting thing. Did you really need what you bought? Probably not. But even with this in mind, we keep buying new products and upgrading to the latest gadgets; this vicious cycle results in bursting closets and a shoe collection piling high like mountains. That’s the Diderot Effect. Partly psychological, partly deliberate manipulation – it’s the tendency to over-consume, caused by our innate need for ‘betterment.’
It all started with a dressing gown
Denis Diderot was a famous French writer, best known for being the co-founder of the Encyclopédie. He lived in poverty until age 52 when Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia – a big fan of his encyclopédie heard of his poverty and offered to pay £1000 for his entire collection (that’s equivalent to approximately 330 000 AUD in 2021). Upon coming into this sudden money, he bought a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. And that’s when things went downhill…
Seeing the brand-new beauty at his home surrounded by the rest of his ‘old’ possessions made it seem out of place. Like his life didn’t live up to the elegance of the luxurious garment. “All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty”, writes Diderot in his essay Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown. In an attempt to solve his dilemma, Diderot went on a massive shopping spree to replace his old possessions with newer, better options that will look elegant alongside his flashy new robe. An old straw chair substituted for a leather one; time-worn wooden table traded for an expensive writing-table; renowned artists’ work adorning the walls instead of old prints. When things didn’t seem quite right, he would buy more things to fill the void. In a short amount of time, Diderot had blown through all his cash.
The Diderot Effect
This phenomenon of a new possession creating a spiral of dissatisfaction, which leads us to buy more was termed the Diderot Effect. As a result of this emotional experience, we end up buying things that the old us would not have needed to feel happy or fulfilled.
Examples of the Diderot Effect are all around us:
- A new dress creates the need for new shoes, handbags, and accessories to match
- A gym membership leading us to buy an abundance of gym clothes, foam rollers, sports tape, water bottles, meal plans etc
- The purchase of an expensive iPad isn’t complete without a folding case, stylus, screen protectors and spare chargers
In the current age of social media and the internet allowing marketing and advertisements to constantly bombard us, it’s important to realise we are no longer being sold a single product, but an entirely new lifestyle.
How to avoid the vicious spending cycle
– Become aware of your triggers. I have noticed that much of the time I am online shopping I’m either bored or upset. So now that I’ve recognised the trigger, I can avoid the online shopping habit and actively try to turn to do something else in those moments.
– Reduce exposure. Click that UNSUBSCRIBE button! You can reduce/stop the ads for clothes and gadgets that come through emails or text with that one press. Meet your mates at a park instead of the mall. Window shopping is not as harmless as it seems!
– Make sure your new purchases already ‘fit’ with other things you own. This would greatly reduce the times you feel that you have nothing to wear even though your closet is overflowing. Investing in ‘basics’ and ‘staples’ for your wardrobe can greatly help, along with some standalone pieces. If you wish to be a bit more environmentally conscious and to save up those coins, shop second-hand where possible.
– Set yourself a spending limit. I started restricting myself to a $100 monthly purchase. It can be tough to persevere because I’m a sucker for clothes (which makes no sense because I’m antisocial af??) but I’m mentally and financially stronger for it.
– Go one month without buying something new. Usually, if I buy something big this month, I will try not to indulge myself in another big purchase for a few months to try and make it up.
Understand that you don’t need more things to make you happy and fulfilled. It just temporarily fills the void until you move on to the next thing. Which you don’t think will happen, but it does. There is always something to upgrade. You buy the latest iPhone and it’s not even a full year until the next model comes out and you feel like what you have suddenly is not enough. Driving an old Holden? You upgrade to a Mercedes. Then you’ll want a Ferrari. It. Just. Doesn’t. End. Realise that wanting these things is just an option, not a rule you have to follow. If you are not happy with the things you have right now, nothing will ever be enough. You are not defined by your possessions.
P.S. If you wondered what happened to our poor Diderot, don’t worry he ended up realising that his shiny new scarlet robe made him lose his way. “With time all debts will be paid, remorse will be calmed and I will have pure joy,” he concludes his essay. Hear Hear!