How one decision can set off a chain reaction - The Diderot Effect
In modern Western society we are driven heavily by consumption which is largely driven by ideology. The West was purported to be a land of discovery, vastly unexplored. Yet, over time, America became known as the "land of possibility". By the early 1900's, a major shift began to occur when American society became aware of the limitless possibilities of a free-market society. By the 1920's, Ford had introduced the assembly line and by the 40's General Motors began spearheading innovation of big business and production standards.
The argument could be made that automobile production was the spark that ignited our modern consumerist culture. With innovations in production and rapid technological development over the following decades, Americans became increasingly expectant in the ability to participate in the free-market. Fast forward another 80 years and the average American presumes that everything should be instant access. Two day shipping is the new norm and instant downloads have overtaken our previous dial-up connections. Our ability to purchase and consume has reached a point the world has never seen. So where do we go from here?
Don't get me wrong, the ability to have access to a free-market is a great gift given to us in the West. Our access to fresh food, clothes, and other necessities is a luxury that many other societies may never know. However, this superpower is to be used with caution. Greed is not a word familiar to the people in resource-constrained societies such as Uganda or Haiti. Same day delivery and online shopping are completely foreign concepts to many in underdeveloped nations. Yet, in America, greed drives every socioeconomic class from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich. Greed is defined as an "excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions" (source). We all are subject to feelings of greed throughout our lives by wanting and desiring more than is absolutely necessary and required.
Introducing the Diderot Effect
The Diderot effect is named after French philosopher Denis Diderot and highlights a profound pattern of consumption that emerges across individuals related to the purchase of consumer goods. The term Diderot effect was first coined by anthropologist Grant McCracken in 1988 but actually originally referenced by Diderot himself a personal essay titled Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.
Diderot was in financial need which became known to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Upon learning about Diderot's need for money, she agreed to purchase his library for a large sum of money and appoint him lifetime caretaker. What he did shortly after that windfall is what led to the realization of the "Diderot effect".
Diderot highlights how the purchase of a beautiful red dressing gown led to a spiral of consumption that ultimately landed him back in debt. Upon the initial purchase of his new red gown (and hence the parting ways with his old dressing gown), Diderot began to examine all of his other possessions in comparison to his bright new red robe. He quickly realized how lousy they were in comparison. His solution at the time was to begin purchasing new items that were more in line with the luxury of the beautiful red gown, all leading back to the same level of financial constraint that he was originally plagued with.
We are no different than Denis Diderot
The purchase of a new phone is accompanied by a fancy new case, a protection plan, insurance, and a higher monthly bill to boot. Refinishing your deck or patio area comes with the purchase of a new gas grill, patio furniture, outdoor plants, and some trendy decorative lighting. A new outfit needs new shoes and jewelry to match. We are eternally damned by these types of purchases.
The goal is not to stop this urge from happening, but rather change the way you respond to it. Replacing a worn out or broken couch does not have to lead to new lamps, end tables, coffee tables, and an impressive new area rug. You can replace or fix the couch but be cautious of the temptation to enter a proceeding spiral of consumption. Consider painting the tables or simply changing the lamp shades as an alternative to complete replacements- a substitution of undesired behavior.
Instead of substituting the undesired behavior, you could also aim for complete elimination of Diderot-like behavior. This might involve saving up an exact amount for the purchase of a new item- a couch in our example above. Any purchases made within the next 90 days would then need to be examined against whether the original purchase influenced that behavior. If you can hold off beyond 90 days, then the item you were considering purchasing is likely a desire, not a necessity.
What to do about it
I will admit, it is definitely nice to have nice things. Although frugality is an important trait that I hope to share with everyone, frugality does not have to be synonymous with deprivation. By recognizing that we are all subject to the same pressures as Denis Diderot, we can recognize that a spiral of consumption is never more than one purchase away. In particular, if you are already in financial trouble, one single spiral can derail a significant amount of positive progress.
Be mindful of your purchases. Truly consider how much you will value your purchase in the long-term. Certainly do not agonize over every single purchase, but rather try to emphasize mindfulness and frugality more consistently over time. With enough practice, you will easily be able to identify what purchases are in line with your values, and which ones aren't. Overconsumption is not an impressive or attractive quality. Take the time to analyze whether something, or someone, is influencing you to engage in spending behaviors that are not consistent with your ideals.