Elizabeth Kerr has a gift for readers this week and also explains The Diderot Effect and what to do about it

Elizabeth Kerr has a gift for readers this week and also explains The Diderot Effect and what to do about it

By Elizabeth Kerr

We made it!!!

It’s our first anniversary together.

I’ve been writing for a year and you’ve been dutifully building your money machines and noticing the positive effects of saving more and spending less. Right?

Seeing it’s our first anniversary, and I’m ever the traditionalist, I’ve given you something “paper” to celebrate. Click this link, then print 100 times and blue-Tack all over your house. You could even give it to your friends, keep a copy in your wallet or make it your screen saver. Your money machine doesn’t happen overnight but it will happen; and this is a little something from me to you for keeping your inspired. Happy Anniversary!!!

The Diderot Effect

Niceties aside, this week I want to bring you up to speed with the Diderot Effect. If you haven’t heard it before then stay tuned because chances are you’ve been overcome by it without knowing.

The story goes like this:

Diderot, an 18th century philosopher lived a very primitive, basic and humble existence.

He didn’t have a lot of money but one day he was gifted a beautiful silk dressing down from a friend. 

He wasn’t unhappy with his old dressing gown but this one was far superior and made him look awesome and he enjoyed looking wealthier than he was when he wore it.

Standing in his modest home his new dressing gown made everything else he owned look quite shabby and poor.

My apartment looks like a poor student hovel” he thought and he began to replace everything he owned with new modern lavish alternatives.

He replaced his rugs with designer tapestries, his modest desk with a larger handmade one, his straw chair with a leather one and his replaced all his clothes with the latest styles. The story ends with Diderot in debt, broke and unhappy.  

“I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.”   He wrote.

You see his new dressing gown changed the vision he had for himself and he desired to have everything in his home now match this new vision. This essentially is the Diderot Effect and it makes you justify consuming more than you need in order to keep everything you own the same rank. 

Let’s say you buy yourself a new suit for work. In your mind you really look the picture of power and success and each time you wear this suit you feel an extra bit awesome. On the other days when you have to wear your regular clothes they now feel just average. Your new suit has increased your vision and the next thing you know you are telling yourself you need more new suits because your other ones no longer fit your mental image of success, power and rank that the new one does for you.   There was nothing wrong with them but the Diderot Effect makes you do it. In fact, to go with your new suits you buy new shinier shoes and tailored shirts to match this new successful powerful image you are now infused with regardless of the fact you didn’t need them.

The Diderot Effect tells us that we are more likely to want to keep all of our possessions in unity with each other and that by doing so we participate in a never-ending spiral of consumption. Your current state right now might be perfectly functional - but upgrade just a small part of your lifestyle design and it can illuminate the possible wear, tear and age of the old.   

Even I’m not immune to this.  Our youngest moved out of his cot into a new bed. It’s a lovely, modern bed. Suddenly his room felt like it wasn’t good enough for his big-boy bed and the vision I have of him no longer being a baby. The next day I’m down at the hardware store shopping for paints and wallpapers – subconsciously aware that before we put the bed in there I hadn’t given redecorating a second thought.  I was well and truly under the influence of the Diderot Effect***.

How do you break the Diderot Effect?

1. First of all being aware that it exists is a good start. And then accept that it is insane to expect to have a peaceful unity with your possessions and just embrace that your environment is going to be made up of fractious pieces which you have purchased overtime and are all perfectly functional. Your table is still a place to eat dinner at regardless of the new dinner set you may have acquired. Our possessions are not stories about who we are. They are just things which are independent of each other. Your home is not meant to look like a brochure.

2. Recognise that there is nothing wrong with wanting to own things which reflect the person you think you are: but that those choices may be at the expense of your money machine goals.

3. If you can’t see it then you don’t know it exists. Remove all opportunities to be exposed to marketing for new consumer goods. No Freedom Furniture catalogues, no junk mail, no window shopping, no renovation TV shows. All they do is move the baseline for your own personal image and the next thing you know you’re down at the hardware store upgrading your perfectly functional kitchen.

4. Delay. Every time you see something that you want to buy impose a one month delay to let the Diderot Effect wear off first.  

5. Replace only what is no longer functional. Look around your environment right now and draw a mental baseline. Advertising is going to work hard to convince you that your life is better by having their products that you don’t even know about yet or haven’t been invented. Ignore them and only replace what is no longer functional.

As we come to a close for this week it seems only appropriate to quote Diderot's famous last words: “Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”

Don’t forget to come and find me on Facebook and enjoy your gift.

*** I slapped myself a few times to break the Diderot curse and can report that both boys bedrooms are absolutely fine and functional without any changes. The fact the #2 prefers to sleep on the floor is another story…

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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Hi Elizabeth, its a nice article and does give a lot of insight into our buying patterns and consumer behavior. I searched for this term on the internet and found this one:-
cheers. :)

Joshua Becker is a great writer. If anyone reading this hasn't subscribed to his blogs then i totally recommend it. Some of the things he comes out with is Gold! (becomingminimalist.com)

Martin Hawes also wrote about Diderot in the Sunday Start Times this week. Although he and I differ on how Diderot got his dressing gown. Regardless the theory is still sound and worth knowing.

First of all Elisabeth. Congratulations on keeping on task and surviving a year on a site devoted to borrowing. ( New Zealanders don't receive interest - they pay it)

Thanks KH. It is true i have written pretty much about the same thing over and over again from different perspectives. Thanks for hanging in with me this long. The next column is going to be a cracker!

Second. The 'Diderot Effect' LOL. I am currently been tripped up by Diderot on a building renovation. We are certainly ending up with a silk purse but the cash has galloped away. Curse you Diderot.

Renovations and preparing for a baby i think are the two biggest "trip ups" for the Diderot effect. Good luck with the Renos!

We are serial renovators - so well familiar with the effect. Found early on that once the 'projects' dried up - we'd sell the place in order to further feed our obsession. So I came up with a plan to defeat Diderot.

Before we purchase any 'project', we set the reno budget - list everything that needs doing to make it 'perfect' in terms of our taste/convenience - put a price on each of those 'sub-projects' (I won't call them requirements) - and then look at what the property value would realistically be once all our 'projects' are paid for. We then subtract the value of the 'projects' from that realistic market value (never, never allow capital gains to be any part of this consideration of realistic market value) - and that's the max price we will pay for the property. Because of this - many offers made have not been accepted - that's the price you must pay.

I believe it has saved us hundreds of thousands over the years on the Diderot Effect.

But replace worn out functional things with high quality ones that will last. For example, I have 40 year-old dress shoes for formal occasions and an almost 40 year old Series III Daimler among other long-lived, don't go out of style items in my purposefully simplified life.

Agreed. Done right, you get satisfaction both from the product and from the cost effectiveness. (Better yet, buy the high quality item - i.e. car - slightly used and gain even more...)

I absolutely agree with what you are saying here. But in today's fast manufacturing i'm wondering if "quality" has all but dissipated in many areas that we used to assume exists ie: shoes, suits, furniture.... Next week i touch on fast fashion so be sure to come back and read it and bring this up again.

It has almost all but disappeared - and it has most certainly disappeared in all chain/department stores.

For example, we bought a leather corner-suite at Freedom Furniture back in (we think) 1995 (might have been a bit earlier!). Anyway, recently wanted to replace the leather on one section (seat part of that section only) - as the rest of the couch looks like the day we bought it (although colour has likely darkened).

The upholsterer confirmed - not only the quality of the leather but also importantly the quality of construction just does not exist these days, other than for largely bespoke pieces.

Quality is very difficult to find. Everything has a deliberate inbuilt Achilles heel designed to be a point of failure. In the case of a cast iron casserole thingy I bought about five years ago, the knob for the lid broke within the first six months (replaced it with old drawer knob). Whereas the cast iron casserole from the 1940s I picked up for $8 through being in the right place at the right time when somebody was dropping his dead mother's stuff off at St Vinnies is thicker iron, cast all in one piece and would survive a medium-size nuclear explosion. I've been using it nearly every day for years, and somebody else will be able to use it for decades more after I'm dead.

My daughters cot was bought from a garage sale. Worked just like a new one would in every way.

ohhh thats a good one. Not only is it a baby item which means it is a high Diderot effect category (in my mind) but fear mongers work hard to tell parents only brand-new will do; when in actual fact that's not true.

Art direction in magazines, houses for sale I.e. Staged homes, TV shows such as The Block etc all contribute to this Duderot effect. So many people get sucked in, me included in my younger days. I'm well over it nowadays and my favourite saying to people is that when it comes to my home (note the word home, not house) is that I don't live in a magazine. I worked for many years in the advertising industry and when I look at magazines etc I appreciate beautiful art direction, but that is all it is. It's all about aspirational lifestyles that most just cannot afford. Dreams are free people.

I hadn't really thought about a new suit to go with my Tag, but now that you mention it....

But in all fairness I do laugh at all the rationalisations people make for buying bigger, better etc. After years of listening to someone justify the usefulness of a double wall oven for the zero times they would ever use them both at once. They then called me on why I was buying a double wide oven if they weren't useful i replied 'I am only buying it because i think it is cool.'

I don't know which is worse. Doing it blindly, or knowingly doing it anyway.

"doing it blindly, or knowingly doing it anyways".... ohhhh that is a good question. I think knowingly doing it anyways is worse... 'ignorance is bliss until it isn't anymore ...

I used to think a bright green fridge was cool. So glad i didn't....

Oh. Did I mention I was getting a Cranberry oven. #worriednow

Thank you for your great columns, Elizabeth, and for the poster - I've printed it out for daily reminding.

My story, in short, earlier this year I was wandering the interweb looking for home organisation ideas and stumbled on a quote along the lines of "if you need more organisational tools, maybe you have too much stuff", which lead me to lots of interesting websites and blogs (decluttering, minimalism etc). I can't remember how I found your column, but a comment in one about the money machine lead me to Mr Money Mustache, whose website blew my mind. I have totally changed how I view our personal / family finances. Whereas previously we were doing okay (slightly better than average I like to think), we now have written up plans and goals for work / mortgage / early(ish) retirement.

It's a constant challenge embedding these changes though. I still have an eye for pretty, unnecessary things and can easily see myself looking at a similar room upgrade when we move our youngest into a bed next year. I will resist ;-)