Household consumption and the Diderot Effect

Written and accurate as at: 12 February 2020

Today, we have consumer goods and services, both essential and desirable, that our ancestors could only have dreamt of in their lifetime. And yet, some of us are still driven to, or prompted to, purchase even more.

This phenomenon can be due, in part, to the consumerism-focused society we live in where we are constantly bombarded by internal and external cues that nudge us to conform to a certain way of life and value system.



The maintenance – and improvement – of our wellbeing and happiness is tied to the purchase of consumer goods and services. This can place us on a continuous and dissatisfying ‘consumption spiral/treadmill’.

Consumption in itself is not a bad thing, however, reflexive and wasteful consumption can be. For example, we often use consumer goods only until newer or better versions arrive rather than when they physically wear out.

This can be worsened by the constant blurring of lines between what is considered an essential consumer good or service versus a desirable consumer good or service.

Reflexive and wasteful consumption can be unhealthy personally, and unsustainable ecologically, for example:

  • We can start to accumulate debt, or allocate too much of our income, to the purchase of consumer goods and services that we believe we need, to find out later that we didn’t really need them at all.
  • Globally, on an annual basis, it’s estimated that we use the equivalent of 1.75 Earths to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste – we are currently in a state of ‘ecological deficit/overshoot’.

Understanding our spending influences and behaviour can be a key ingredient to a meaningful life (and sustainable future) – one that’s not solely underpinned by the purchase of consumer goods and services.

In light of this, we focus in on an interesting spending behaviour concept, the Diderot Effect.


The Diderot Effect

In 1772, the French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote a somewhat humorous, but insightful essay. The essay was entitled ‘Regrets for my old dressing gown, or advice to those who have more taste than fortune’.

In the essay, he tells the story about the introduction of a luxurious new dressing gown into his life, and how it prompted him to replace all of his existing possessions with ones that conformed to the new possession.

The new possession triggered a consumption spiral due to his need for conformity. Yet, in the end, he remained dissatisfied, and was left resentful of the new possession as he had lost his ‘identity’ (and gained debt).

Thus was born the Diderot Effect. In a nutshell, the Diderot Effect refers to the following: the purchase of a consumer good or service can prompt the purchase of another consumer good or service, and so on.

It’s important to note that we can often intertwine our identity with the consumer goods and services we purchase. It can be a form of self-expression, as well as a representation of our progress in life (to ourselves and to others).

However, the Diderot Effect explains the potential implications of this from a consumption perspective:

  1. We can be prompted to have all of our consumer goods and services conform to our identity.
  2. The introduction of a new consumer good or service (that doesn’t match our identity) can trigger a continuous consumption spiral to get back to a conformative identity.

Here are two simplistic examples of the Diderot Effect at play:

  • The purchase of a new car can prompt the purchase of matching new car seat covers, floor mats, dash mats, boot mats, steering wheel covers, sunshades, as well as other interior and travel accessories.
  • The purchase of new shoes can look out of place if it doesn’t match with an existing outfit we own. This can prompt us to purchase a new outfit that matches the new shoes and do away with our old ones.

Again, consumption in itself is not a bad thing. However, it’s important to keep a balance, and endeavour to ensure that our wellbeing and happiness isn’t solely tied to the purchase of consumer goods or services.

When reflecting on life, often it’s not the consumer goods or services that we have purchased, but rather the memorable experiences that we have accumulated over the years that hold greater meaning to us.

From a reflexive and wasteful consumption perspective, prior to purchasing a new consumer good or service, we could consider whether it will add value to our life or if it’s a subject of excess and abundance. For example:

  • Is it possibly something that we can live without? And,
  • Will its absence from our life negatively impact our wellbeing and happiness?

This happiness consisted of nothing else but the harmony of the few things around me with my own existence, a feeling of contentment and well-being that needed no changes and no intensification.” (Hermann Hesse).

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