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…