Have you ever bought a new shirt, then found yourself hating your ugly old pants? You've become the victim of the Diderot Effect. It's part psychological, and part deliberate manipulation. Learn how you can be convinced that you have to be updated like a phone.

Diderot Gets a Bathrobe

Denis Diderot was a philosopher during the Enlightenment, which meant he should have been above such petty things as consumerism. On the other hand, he was also an art critic, and so liked beauty. That might have led to the situation he described in his essay, "Regrets on Parting With My Old Dressing Gown."


He had an old beat-up thing that he wore around his small apartment. One day friend gave him a present of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. Diderot loved it, but felt it was out of place among his cheap old furniture. He replaced his straw chair with a leather armchair. He replaced his desk, and the prints on his walls. Then he started replacing his regular clothes. The tale ends with Diderot in debt and disconsolate, working to maintain his beautiful room. He used to be the "master" of his possessions, but now he is the "slave" of a dressing gown.

The essay is fictional, and the sentiment is pure romanticism. Don't consider your physical surroundings! Advance your mind and let go of the physical. We understand Diderot's ideals, but we also understand his experiences. Who among us hasn't come home with a beautiful new possession, placed it in their home, looked around, and thought, "This place is a dump."


The Diderot Effect

Just noticing the grubbiness of your regular possessions, when put next to something extraordinarily nice, isn't enough for you to fall under the spell of the Diderot Effect. To go full Diderot, according to sociologists, we need to start identifying with our possessions. Unfortunately, we tend to do that already. Most of us have picked up a piece of clothing, or sat on a piece of furniture, and thought, "No, this isn't me." How could that be? It's just a functional object.


But consumption doesn't work that way. Even the most dressed-down of us uses our clothes to convey a picture of who we are. We identify ourselves using our possessions. When we do that, we don't just want high quality. In fact, many people will reject high quality. We want unity. We want to present a coherent whole. This can be a big problem for any companies that want us to buy things. No matter how good a product they offer, if it falls outside of the consumer's ideas of the unity of their lives and their looks, they will resist purchasing it. On the other hand, once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn't fit our current sense of unity, we go on a rampage trying to reconstruct ourselves. Either we throw away the luxury item, or we start to upgrade ourselves. Few people throw away the luxury item. Most people start replacing the other things in their lives. This involves a lot of money.

How to Use the Diderot Effect

Naturally, there's a lot of focus on how to get people to take that first step out of their identity. Any good that's considered outside the pattern of someone's regular purchases is called a "departure good." Companies market hard to get people to make that first move, but they also want to know how to keep people Dideroting.


How does one sample purchase, one luxury, become a whole lifestyle? According to research journals, the key is to make the item not a purchase, but a replacement. You're not buying a soap dispenser, you're replacing your nasty old bathroom soap with a nice-looking, efficient soap dispenser. Are you aware that it can come as part of a set? And that that matches a shower curtain? You're not buying a new pair of shoes, you're replacing an old pair with something simple and timeless - that you can't wear with jeans so get some nice skirts or slacks. Much of what we buy today is a kind of a taster product for a complete lifestyle. People aren't supposed to be springing for one big luxury purchase, they are meant to be buying better selves. That takes repeat business.

Lest we think that such manipulation is only put into effect by those awful corporations, the Diderot Effect has been espoused by the green movement as well. They use the same language, replacing existing wasteful goods with more durable, cleaner, more responsibly-made goods. Eventually, when we learn how such things are made, and how many "products" there are in the "ecological line," we stop being the people who buy a few green things and become people whose life is based on making sustainable choices.


There are worse things to be. What's interesting about the Diderot Effect is it's not pure evil. It can be used to manipulate people into debt, but there's a difference between an Enlightenment screed and real life. There's nothing wrong with wanting to communicate one's sense of self through aesthetic choices. There's nothing wrong with keeping a unified look to our work places or homes. And there's nothing wrong with trying to live our lives in keeping with a set of principles regarding how products are made. It's just that these desires are so understandable, and so universal, that they can cause us to make huge decisions when we think we're just getting a new robe.

[Via Diderot Effect, Disciplinary Approaches to Consumption, Sociological Theory and the Environment, Creating Diderot Unities.]