How the “Diderot Effect” Can Change Your Life …

Denis Diderot, an 18th century French writer, received a scarlet gown. It was the worst gift of his life. The reason why is now called the Diderot Effect.

The Diderot EffectIn the 18th century, a French writer named Denis Diderot received a gift: a beautiful scarlet dressing gown.

The fabric was gorgeous. The colors were rich. The craftsmanship was spectacular.

Diderot immediately threw his tattered old gown away. He didn’t need it anymore. His new gown was breathtaking.

Of course, he needed to make a few extra purchases to accommodate that gown. In the past, if one of his books was covered with dust, he’d simply use his old gown as a rag. But he couldn’t wipe away dust with his beautiful new gown. He’d need to buy some dust rags.

When there was excess ink on his pen, he used his old gown to wipe it clear. He couldn’t do that with the new gown. He’d need to buy handkerchiefs, or perhaps he’d need better pens.

But those are small purchases, right? A small price to pay to maintain such a beautiful gown … right?

Diderot began to notice that the rest of his home looked shabby in comparison to the gown. His drapes were threadbare and faded, in contract to the rich colors of the gown. He’d need to replace them.

He often sat in a straw chair. He didn’t want the gown to snag on the fibers. His gown looked silly on such a cheap old chair, anyway. He bought a chair upholstered in rich Moroccan leather, with colors that suited the scarlet tones of his gown.

He spent most of his day sitting at his desk, wearing the gown. But the gown didn’t match the rickety desk. It would be the 18th-century equivalent of wearing a crisp Armani suit while sitting at a beat-up Walmart desk. So Diderot purchased an expensive new desk.

Once he had that desk, though, his paintings looked amateurish and faded. He needed more exquisite art on his walls, art that matched the desk and drapes.

Soon, Diderot plunged into debt.

Fast-Forward to the 21st Century …

You buy a new home. Now you need new furniture to fill that home.

You buy a nice car. Now you need professional car washes and nicer hubcaps.

You buy a beautiful shirt. But you don’t have jeans or a blazer to match.

You have an iPad, but you need a case. Preferably a nice one.

Your home has a huge lawn, which you need to landscape. That costs two weeks’ pay …

You found great shoes, but they don’t really coordinate with anything else in your closet ….

So you jump on an “escalator.” You upsell yourself. It’s called the Diderot Effect.

So What Happened to Diderot?

Diderot wrote an essay outlining his regret. His beautiful scarlet gown had become a curse, not a blessing.

He missed his faded, tattered robe, he wrote. Its folds fit comfortably around his body. Its dust-and-ink stains reflected the life of “a writer, a man who works.”

“I was absolute master of my old dressing gown,” Diderot said, “but I have become a slave to my new one.”

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Thanks to Notions Capital for today’s photo.


  1. says

    Yes, I’ve heard of this “effect” before, but the item was an expensive rug that a couple received as a gift. Once they received the rug, they found their current home was “shabby,” so they bought new furniture; a new car, new clothing, etc.

    You hit on something I was just reflecting on this week, because I haven’t really been clothing shopping in several years; although, I have picked up a couple of items here or there, but no SHOPPING like I used to do. I wanted to buy some new shoes this past week, but then I was about to launch into my own version of the “Diderot Effect” thinking, if I get new shoes, then I’ll need some new clothes…so I simply took a lot of my warm weather saddles to be resoled and have the heels replaced. Doing that for 6 pairs of shoes was equivalent to purchasing one pair of shoes. I saved money, and those shoes will be like new again!

    • says

      @Chante — How funny that you mention that; I just re-soled a pair of shoes for the first time. It was much, much cheaper than buying a new pair, and as long as I take good care of the shoes (clean them, etc.) they’ll remain “like new” for years.

      • says

        Yes! It is so much more economical than buying a new pair of shoes (plus, they are already broken in :). Also, that should have been “sandals” NOT “saddles.” Hmmm, I must be dreaming of horseback riding!
        Take it easy Paula, and thanks for always have such great, and inspiring posts.

  2. says

    Wow, that’s pretty crazy. It’s something. And true. At first I wasn’t sure why he threw out the old gown since he could still use it for a rag like he used to. But then things progressed even farther from there.

    • says

      Keeping the old gown: That’s exactly what I was thinking – great, now you have a Nice Presentable Gown and the Comfortable Old Gown for all the usual things.

  3. says

    Great article. Even those of us who are financially savvy and cautious with our spending can fall prey to this situation if we don’t pay attention. Thanks for sharing!

  4. says

    I get the idea and the effect, and it harkens to the idea of lifestyle inflation as well. I also see this happening with people upgrading their homes because the kitchen is a luxurious one, but the rest of the house is shabby in comparison. It just gets expensive.

    …however for me, when I get something as nice and as new and as lovely, I use it the same way as I did with the old one.

    New ink stains on the robe, I say! Adds to the beauty.

    A new laptop? Goes through the same ringer as the old one. I don’t hit it as much, I must say, but it still gets worked on just as hard.

    Otherwise, I don’t see the point of having nice, new things if you can’t use them, or feel as though you have to preserve the niceness and newness for a long time. In that case, I shouldn’t buy or use anything if I don’t want to really USE it.

  5. says

    I love this post! I’m not a big shopper, but every once in a while I get the “urge to splurge”. My phone is due for an upgrade and I was thinking that an iPad might be useful. But with the new phone, the iPad, a case, service, etc….we are talking quite a bit of money! But last week, while doing a little “window shopping” in a phone store, I was introduced to a new “notebook phone” (a phablet – although I think that is a dumb word). It meets all my needs; I can see it without my reading glasses, and am of an age where I am used to a “big” phone! And I can get it for the same price as an iPhone! I am saving a ton of money! And, I can get an Otterbox case and a dash mount for the gps from Amazon for about $50.

  6. says

    Love the article, but find it being on this blog a bit ironic. Isn’t the concept of ‘affording anything’ based on the desire to upgrade your life?

    This is my first time on your blog, so I could be missing the point, but I enjoyed the irony.

    • says

      @Travis — Great question. The concept of “affording anything” is based on the idea that no one should ever utter the words “I can’t afford it” with regards to their biggest, boldest dreams. If you lay awake at night dreaming of traveling the world, starting your own business, quitting your job, or whatever else your dream is — you can afford it, you just need to ruthlessly slash other expenses in your life in order to spend lavishly on the dreams that you want most.

      Diderot didn’t dream of having better furnishings. In fact, he may have sacrificed other, real dreams in order to “keep up with the Joneses” (or “keep up with his dressing gown”).

  7. says

    What a terrific tale, Paula. Just last night I was at a friend’s home and it’s lovely. And I fell into that trap of thinking ‘ I wish I had . . . ‘
    Reading your post today it comes at just the right time for me to remember that every purchase makes its own demands and that sometimes those demands outweigh the initial pleasure. Thank you!

  8. says

    My car feels exactly like this! There are so many little pieces that fail and I am forced to replace them. There’s also the temptation of upgrading when you purchase a new model. My friend just paid $28,000 for a car that’s Msrp is only $21,000…

  9. says

    SO true…i found some nice super-discounted pants…then i had to buy socks to match them…and now i need a shirt to with that…and shoes….so much for my initial saving on the pants!!!!

  10. says

    I’ve never heard of the Diderot Effect and found this post really interesting. I guess the really issue is why aren’t we satisfied with what we already have? Or, is ignorance bliss? If he’d never received the robe he would have been perfectly happy using what he already had. I’m not shopping this year and as long as I have no idea what fabulous fashion is out there I am perfectly ok with what I currently have.

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