Beating the Diderot Effect

I recently enjoyed a great article by James Clear on the Diderot effect, as he names it. What is the Diderot effect, you ask?

The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled.

The article uses an example from the life of Denis Diderot, the French philosopher for whom the effect is named, in which he uses a windfall to purchase new clothes, then notices that all of his other clothes now look shabby by comparison, spurring a round of clothes-buying that ended up hurting him financially.

In short, the new clothes, which he bought so that he could feel better about how he dressed, actually ended up making him feel worse and spurred him into a clothes spending spree just so he could feel good about his clothes again but damaging his financial state along the way.

This is a sentiment I’ve observed in my own life. As someone who uses digital devices for almost all of my work, I find that when I upgrade or replace one device, I have this strange gut feeling that I should upgrade or replace all of the devices I rely on – my main desktop computer, my laptop, my tablet, and my phone, all of which have very distinct use cases and all of which I use at least a few times a week. The ones I’m not replacing feel old and shabby and I’m noticing all of the features of the newer models far more than usual. I don’t need a new iPad yet, but the new model with the Pencil that sticks to the side of the tablet and charges automatically… so, so tempting.

I noticed the Diderot effect actually just a few days ago. We have a mismatched array of Rubbermaid and other containers that we use for food storage, where we’ve bought sets of them, had individual containers warp too badly for continual use or had people “borrow” containers and never return them, then buy new sets until we reach the state we’re in today where we just have a ton of mismatched containers, all with slightly different lids, and although some of them are wonderful containers, I’m tempted to throw out 95% of them and just start from scratch, even though the older containers still work perfectly fine. They just look like a jumbled mess and require extra effort to make sure we always have the right lid clean and in a spot where it can always be found. I felt this really strongly last week when I realized we were basically out of large family-sized food containers and bought one to add to the collection, and I was strongly motivated to just trash everything and start over with several copies of three or four different sizes of containers. (It would be really costly, though.)

Several months ago, we finished a small home addition and this caused us to go through a cycle of furniture upgrades, a couple of which needed to happen, but several of which mostly happened because our old furniture looked really shabby. (It turns out that having a microfiber couch for twelve years while you raise three kids from infancy to approaching their teen years results in that couch looking pretty trashy.)

A few years ago, when our family started taking community taekwondo classes together, we quickly realized that we needed a bunch of additional items to go along with it – uniforms, sparring gear, t-shirts for the hot summer months, and so on. Most of those were one time expenses, but it really added up.

That Diderot effect keeps popping up again and again. We buy one thing or add one expense to our life and it ends up triggering a bunch of additional expenses, or at least a strong impulse to add those expenses.

The thing is, the Diderot effect is always an expensive one. It’s always a nudge to buy new things, whether they’re completely new to our life or simply expensive upgrades. It always starts with us buying something new, which should make us feel good, but we’re left feeling bad because we now see things that are missing or the flaws in the things we already have, so we spend money to fill in those holes and correct that bad feeling, resulting in us spending a lot of money just to get back feeling like we did at the start except with marginally better stuff and a lot less money in our accounts.

The Diderot effect is a losing proposition, in other words. We don’t get a better life out of it. We just get slightly better stuff, a lot less money in the bank, and a lot less opportunity as a result of that spent money.

Sometimes, it’s because there were a bunch of hidden purchases that you need to make something actually work, like when you buy a new device and it turns out it needs a few attachments to really do what you want. Sometimes, it’s because after that purchase, the stuff you already have looks bad by comparison and you feel negatively about those things and a strong compulsion to replace them. In both cases, you’ve bought something and now you feel worse off and must buy more things to make up the difference.

That’s a financially destructive pattern to be in, yet it happens to many of us with surprising frequency. We don’t look to maintain or to downgrade or to simplify or reduce. We look to upgrade or multiply. It’s a pretty natural inclination.

The question is, what can we do to beat the Diderot effect? Here are some strategies that work, some of which overlap with Clear’s article.

Curate Your Life Like a Gallery

When you go into an art gallery, the walls aren’t overstuffed with items. Rather, each item is given its own space to be individually admired and enjoyed.

When a gallery acquires a new piece, they don’t just toss it up on whatever wall space happens to have enough room for it. Usually, they pull a piece off of the walls and put the new one up to replace it. That old item is often sold.

This “one in, one out” approach keeps the gallery feeling pleasant with fresh works to enjoy while also keeping the gallery in business by balancing out the cost of acquiring new works with the income from selling old ones.

Apply this same approach to your own life. When you want something new in your life, make room for it first by selling off something you already have. For example, keep your film collection down to a single shelf, or keep your book collection to a certain bookshelf. If you want to add an item, you have to first sell off an item to make room for it.

I’ve been applying this to my own life. If a book won’t fit on my two bookshelves, I need to get rid of a book to find room for it. If a board game won’t fit on my board game shelves, then I need to get rid of a game to make room for it. If a new item for the kitchen doesn’t have a spot in our pantry or cupboards, then something else has to go.

This strategy keeps one specific aspect of the Diderot effect in check – it prevents the strict accumulation of items. If you follow this strategy fully, you can’t accumulate items.

Of course, this doesn’t fix other challenges caused by the Diderot effect, like the desire to constantly upgrade items. You need other strategies to achieve that effect.

Buy Sideways, Not Upwards

Let’s hop back and look at my example of food storage containers. We have a lot of food storage containers in our kitchen of various types, and the result of that is that we often struggle to find matching lids for each container because all of the different kinds have incompatible lids.

A good approach for this problem going forward is that whenever we need to replace a container, we replace it with something exactly like one of the containers we already have.

This simple strategy is in line with the “gallery rule” described above and it also subtly solves another issue: it actually makes our lid challenges easier. Over time, we will gradually move to a situation where we only have two or three different types of containers and as long as they keep making those kinds, we just replace any that are worn out with the same exact one.

Another great example of this is electronics. When you have to replace an electronic device, replace it with a new version that’s very similar to your old one unless there’s a strong and compelling reason to upgrade. If you replace a broken electronic device with a very similar newer model, it’s likely that you won’t have to replace cables or peripherals, saving you money.

On top of that, it is much less likely to make your other items seem “shabby” by comparison. You won’t feel nearly as compelled to replace the other things you have if the new item is similar to what you already have.

This is readily apparent with clothes. When I wear out a pair of jeans, I get a pair that’s very similar to the one I replaced. When I wear out a shirt, I get a shirt that’s very similar to the one I replaced. That way, the rest of my wardrobe isn’t outclassed and thus I don’t feel a need to replace lots of clothes at once with fancier stuff.

That doesn’t mean a new item can’t be “better” than the old one, but it shouldn’t be a radical change. For example, replacing worn out items with long lasting and reliable versions of those items is usually a good move and it won’t compel you to replace everything.

As useful as those tips are for replacing things, they don’t really address the issue of new items that aren’t really similar to the stuff you already have. What about new stuff?

Reduce Your Media Time

For new items, I always look at the sources from which I hear about those new items. I find out about them from websites. I find out about them from news reports. I find out about them from advertisements. I find out about them from product placements.

Usually, one or two mentions isn’t enough to really get my attention, but it’s the repeated mentions that really brings those new things into focus for me and makes me interested in them. That’s why new products usually come with a “media blitz” – the marketers want you to hear and see enough mentions of that new thing that it becomes a part of your conscious thought.

So, what’s the solution? The solution is to simply reduce your media time. Spend less time consuming media and more time doing things. By media, I’m referring to television, movies, magazines, radio, podcasts, websites, and social media – the types of media where consistent product placement occurs and you’re often introduced to new kinds of products. Things like books and recorded music rarely do this, so they’re somewhat excluded from the mix.

It’s easy. Stop turning on the TV by default. Delete the social media apps from your phone. Stop compulsively visiting general or political news websites or sites devoted to your hobbies. Focus on kicking those habits most of all and you’ll find that gradually your awareness of new products (which you almost exclusively don’t need) gets less and less.

Fill that time with other things. Get involved in actually participating in hobbies that you enjoy. Instead of reading outdoor websites, go on hikes. Instead of watching cooking videos, make a great meal. If you have little bits of downtime where you rely on your phone for entertainment, read a book on there using the Overdrive app. Get out in your community in the evenings instead of watching television. Listen to an audiobook during your commute instead of the “morning zoo” or talk radio.

Last but not least, here’s my favorite tactic of all.

Think Critically About the Things You Buy

Whenever we’re about to make a new purchase, we tend to think really positively about that item. We envision it having a great positive impact on our life. We think about all of the great features. We think about how good it will look. The positive thoughts are overwhelming, reinforcing our decision to buy.

For me, the single most powerful resistance to the Diderot effect is to recognize it in advance, and I do that by intentionally thinking critically about every purchase of any significance I’m going to make.

Basically, if I’m thinking of making a non-essential purchase of more than a dollar or two, I give myself a “waiting period” before doing so. Usually, it’s thirty days.

At some point during that waiting period – and usually at multiple points – I look at all of the purchases I’m considering and ask myself why I shouldn’t make that purchase. What are the drawbacks of this item? Will I really use it as much as I think? Will it need a bunch of extra purchases? What is it giving me that I don’t already have, and are those features worth the cost?

The Diderot effect is part of my thinking when I’m criticizing purchases. Will it make me want more stuff to go along with it? Will it make the things I already have seem junky by comparison and trigger a big wave of needless spending?

Those criticisms of any big purchases I’m considering often deflate my desire to buy and thus I can safely delete them from my wishlist.

What’s even more interesting is that the more consistently I use this strategy, the less I desire new things at all. If I start to consistently think critical thoughts about potential purchases to the point that I don’t make those purchases, I start thinking about all purchases that way by default. I start to move away from the flood of purely positive thoughts that tend to lead up to a purchase and instead find myself looking immediately for reasons not to buy something, and that keeps a lot of purchases at bay.

I’m not perfect at this, and it definitely goes through ebbs and flows, but it’s a powerful tool in my repertoire and it definitely keeps the Diderot effect at bay both in terms of the initial purchase and the ancillary purchases that the Diderot effect would cause.

Final Thoughts

The Diderot effect might not seem like a big deal, but it has a surprising amount of financial impact. For me, it often shows up as a cascade of purchases – if I buy one thing, I’m soon wanting to make more and more purchases along those same lines. The tricky part of this is that the cascade is usually pretty subtle. I often don’t really notice the chain reaction until it’s already past.

Nipping that cascade in the bud has a huge positive impact on my finances, but it’s not easy. For me, the above strategies work well, but they require an avoidance of old habits, and old habits are easy to fall back into.

The trick, as always, is to build new habits in a vigilant way until those new habits are so natural that your old habits disappear, feeling like a relic of the past rather than a normal way of doing things.

Choosing your habits wisely kills things like the Diderot effect (and countless other similar effects) and makes it much easier to achieve your goals in life, financial and otherwise.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.