How the Diderot Effect explains why you buy things you don't need
Do the clothes make the man? With the Diderot Effect, material goods can help forge your whole identity.
In 1765, Russian Empress Catherine the Great heard that the philosopher Dennis Diderot was in dire need of money. As a well-known patron of the arts, sciences, and Enlightenment philosophers, she immediately purchased his entire library. She directed him to keep it at his home and hired him as her librarian with 25 years of salary upfront.
Diderot, whose finances had never been sound, proceeded to use some of the money to buy a very lovely scarlet robe.
This is where his troubles began. After he got used to the splendor of his new garment, he noticed that his apartment wasn’t quite as nice as it should be now that he was wearing beautiful clothes.
To fix this, he replaced his old prints with new ones. Then he noticed his armchair was no longer suitable and replaced it with a new leather one. His desk was then suddenly out of place and needed to be updated as well.
Before long, he had replaced nearly every item in his home with a shiny upgrade. In the end, he was in debt and still hungry for more material goods.
He describes his descent into materialism in his essay Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown. This spiral of consumption is now known as The Diderot Effect, as he was the first to describe it.
What is it?
The Diderot Effect is a two-part phenomenon. It is based on two assumptions about our shopping habits. Those ideas are:
- Goods purchased by customers become part of their identity and tend to complement one another.
- The introduction of a new item which deviates from that identity can cause a spiral of consumption in an attempt to forge a new cohesive whole.
Both of these ideas are on display in Diderot's essay. He explained that the first robe was part of his identity as a writer:
“Traced in long black lines, one could see the services it had rendered me. These long lines announce the litterateur, the writer, the man who works. I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am.”
He was also aware of how that one garment was part of a larger whole, explaining:
“My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me. A straw chair, a wooden table, a rug from Bergamo, a wood plank that held up a few books, a few smoky prints without frames, hung by its corners on that tapestry. Between these prints three or four suspended plasters formed, along with my old robe, the most harmonious indigence.”
But when he introduced the new robe there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty," leading to the spiral of consumption.
As modern sociologists now understand, his getting even a single item that broke his theme lead to an attempt to replace everything in his room to match the splendor of his new robe.
What can this effect do to me?
In the case of Diderot himself, it leads to a vicious cycle of consumption that nearly bankrupted him. While this was an extreme case, made worse no doubt by being made suddenly well off after a lifetime of limited means, the rest of us still need to be wary of where one out of place purchase can lead.
At the very least, the Diderot Effect can make us desire things we don’t need to provide a more seamless association between the things we have. As anybody who has bought a new shirt only to need new shoes, pants, and ties to match knows, this spending can get out of hand in a hurry.
How can I avoid being taken in?
As with many vicious cycles, the best thing to do is not start the cycle at all. Diderot only had a problem because he bought the first robe. Without it, there wouldn't have been any problem.
There are many ways to reduce your consumption. Even something as simple as avoiding the temptation to shop can be enough to stop the Diderot effect before it starts. It can also help to change your thinking when replacing an older item with a newer, flashier, version. Instead of thinking of it as an upgrade, consider it as a mere replacement.
Since this effect also applies to other people, maybe make sure your gifts to others aren’t going to cause them to want to redo their entire living room.
Does this tie into any other philosophy?
Diderot himself only ventured into this subject once and he is much more famous for his work on the Encyclopédie. The concept has influenced some critiques of capitalism since then and has recently become a topic in sociology and psychology.
It also serves as an excellent example of why pursuing desire won’t necessarily lead to happiness, as Buddhism teaches us. In cases of material goods at least, one purchase fuels the desire for the next.
While most of us will never have to worry about getting an influx of wealth from the Empress of Russia, the Diderot Effect can still torment us all. As with many things, being aware of the tendency of one purchase to lead to another might not be enough to stop us from getting taken in all the time, but it might help us avoid Diderot’s situation.
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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case
- The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
- Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
- A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict
The death of Old Yugoslavia
Image: public domain
United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.
Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.
The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.
After the wars
Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.
The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.
So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.
Kosovo divides the world
Image: public domain
In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).
The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).
Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.
Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.
Land for peace?
Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.
In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.
The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.
The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.
If others can do it...
Image: Ruland Kolen
Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.
Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.
Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.
Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.
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- Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
- The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
- Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
- Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
- Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
- But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
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