How to get off the consumer escalator
Have you ever wondered how your life would change if you received $50,000?
Denis Diderot, a French philosopher, had lived his previous 52 years in poverty. But in 1765, when an Empress of Russia wanted to buy Diderot’s books, everything changed.
From one day to another, Diderot got $53,000 plus a monthly income to spare. And so he did what any good philosopher would do — buying a new scarlet robe. And that’s when things started going wrong.
How the Diderot Effect Makes You Buy Things, You Don’t Need
Diderot’s new clothing was beautiful. In fact, it was so beautiful; everything else he owned looked misplaced. In his words: “All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.”
So he bought things that matched his new robe’s beauty: a stunning rug from Syria, unique sculptures, a shiny kitchen table, and a magnificent mirror.
When you have money to spend, you see what Diderot calls “a void disagreeable to the eye. There was a vacant corner next to my window. This corner asked for a writing desk, which it obtained.”
Diderot’s behavior coined what we now know as The Diderot Effect. Buying new things can lead to a spiraling consumption of complementary goods. As a result, you crave for more and more things to feel happy and content.
Unlike Diderot, I never lived in poverty, but everything changed when my income quadrupled in 2020.
From one day to another, I had money to spare. While I followed my mentor’s recommendations and invested most of it, I also bought a lot of stuff. I upgraded my desk with a new monitor and noise-canceling headphones.
For the monitor, I also needed a better webcam. And for the webcam, additional cable clips, and sockets, so everything looked clean. I was trapped in a vicious consumer circle.
But even if you don’t get an unexpected sum of money, you likely feel other possessions should match your new possessions:
- You buy a new suit and have to get a belt to match.
- You buy a new phone and suddenly need insurance, a protective case, new headphones, or a second charger.
- You upgrade a part of your home and suddenly need the new decor to match it.
Juliet Schor, a professor for sociology, compares the effect to an escalator:
“When the acquisition of each item on a wish list adds another item, and more, to our “must-have” list, the pressure to upgrade our stock of stuff is relentlessly unidirectional, always ascending.”
How to Get Off the Consumer Escalator
There are a few things you can do to break free from The Diderot Effect.
Awareness. If you realize you’re in the consuming spiral, you reclaim your decision power. Once you understand marketing mechanisms, you’ll likely stop buying luxury brands. Not because you’re wasting your money but because you’ll feel foolish doing so.
Self-imposed restraints. Voluntarily change your environment. Stay away from malls, catalogs, online shops, or shopaholic friends.
Durability. Buy things not because of novelty but in terms of how long they can help you. Once you are emotionally attached, it’s harder to replace them with new stuff.
Additional costs and tradeoffs. Before you buy something new, think about the implications and consequences. Does your current software run on a new computer? What else do you need if you acquire that thing you want?
Downgrading exclusivity. New things don’t reflect prestige but ignorance. As Juliet Schor says: “What if, when we looked at a pair of Air Jordans, we thought, not of a magnificent basketball player, but of the company’s deliberate strategy to hook poor inner-city kids into an expensive fashion cycle?”
Buying new things can make you dissatisfied with what you have. You’ll end up in a spiraling consumption pattern that has severe psychological and environmental impacts.
As Denis Diderot once said:
“My friends, keep your old friends. My friends, fear the touch of wealth. Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”
If you’re serious about breaking the consumer spiral, start with the suggested steps and free yourself from the shackles of ever wanting more stuff you don’t need.