It starts with an easy chair. One of those sleek, black leather Eames loungers with a matching ottoman—the sort that sophisticated characters in the movies always seem to have in their living rooms. You find one on sale. Even with the heavy markdown, the price makes you feel a little faint. But you splurge.
At home, you expect the chair to make you feel better about your decor. But the opposite happens. Suddenly, next to this svelte masterpiece of mid-century design, all the rest of your furniture looks hopelessly chintzy. Before long, you’ve overhauled your entire living room to the standard set by your new chair.
The term was coined in the late 1980s by the anthropologist Grant McCracken, who noticed how, once we start upgrading, we’re bad at stopping.
This upwardly ratcheting pattern of consumption is called the Diderot effect. The term was coined in the late 1980s by the anthropologist Grant McCracken, who noticed how, once we start upgrading, we’re bad at stopping. McCracken named this tendency after the philosopher Denis Diderot, who described a similar household overhaul in a 1772 essay called “Regrets on Parting With My Old Dressing Gown,” about the aftermath of being given a fancy new garment. “I was the absolute master of my old dressing gown,” Diderot wrote, “but I have become a slave to my new one.”
We want our belongings to reflect a coherent identity, McCracken theorized, and so our upgrades are an attempt to resolve a kind of dissonance. Marketers have long exploited this foible to entice customers to buy whole new product lines. Today, environmentalists wonder whether the Diderot effect might be enlisted to get consumers to buy green—or even buy used. Next time, try to find some fashionably salvaged furniture.
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