Why We Want Things We Don’t Need — and What to Do About It



How many times have you bought a dress and then had to have shoes to match? How about joining the gym — did that make you run out and buy wrist wraps or new workout clothes? If so, you're a victim of the Diderot Effect. The famous French philosopher Denis Diderot lived nearly his entire life in poverty, but when he got a sudden infusion of cash, everything went downhill. He soon acquired a new scarlet robe, but then felt the urge to buy some new things to match the beauty of his robe. These reactive purchases created a spiral of consumption that led him to acquire more and more things. As a result, he ended up buying things that he previously didn't need to feel happy or fulfilled. Our natural inclination is always to accumulate, to add, to upgrade, and to build upon, and the only way to overcome the Diderot Effect is to follow some simple rules:

  • Reduce your exposure to triggers, things that make you want to "add on." Instead, buy items that fit into the lifestyle you've already established. 
  • Set limits on your spending and don't go over that amount.
  • Go one month without buying something new. This will desensitize you to the need to buy something new.
In Diderot's words, “Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”