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.

Diderot with money
Dennis Diderot as he probably looked during his brief stint in the middle class.

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.   

A new study says it's okay to eat red meat. An immediate uproar follows.

Even before publication, health agencies were asking the journal not to publish the research.

Photo by Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Surprising Science
  • A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found little correlation between red meat consumption and health problems.
  • A number of organizations immediately contested the evidence, claiming it to be based on an irrelevant system of analysis.
  • Beef and dairy production is one of the leading drivers of climate change, forcing humans to weigh personal health against the environment.
Keep reading Show less

CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

UFOs: US intelligence report finds no aliens but plenty of unidentified flying objects

A new government report describes 144 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena.

Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash
Surprising Science

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on UFOs to Congress.

Keep reading Show less
Quantcast