Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Diderot Effect

Denis Diderot
About ten years ago I taught a course on the history of American consumerism.  It was a fun course to teach and I read a lot of scholarship on the subject.  For various reasons I never taught the course again and, as a result, I stopped reading heavily in consumer studies.

But every now and then I run across a piece that reconnects me to the content of the class.

Over at The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes about the "Diderot Effect."  It comes from a 1769 essay by French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot entitled "Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown." If you have not read Diderot's essay, and you like reading historical documents, it is definitely worth your time.  There is a lot about this piece that speaks directly to our contemporary consumer culture.

Here is Burkeman's take on Diderot's essay:

Sometimes it’s nice to learn that a psychological phenomenon has a name, if only so I no longer have to think of it as Me Being Uniquely Irrational And Self-Defeating. So it is with the Diderot effect – which, I learned recently (via Lifehacker), is the term for when you buy something new, but then it makes your other possessions look timeworn by comparison, so you end up replacing them, too. The inspiration here is Denis Diderot’s 1769 essay Regrets For My Old Dressing Gown, in which he recounts being given a luxurious replacement. “My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me,” Diderot laments. But “all is now discordant”. Before long, he’s obliged to replace his furniture and paintings as well: “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.”
You already knew, of course, that consumerism exploits psychological weaknesses to get us to buy stuff we don’t need. We fall victim to “hedonic adaptation” (the way new possessions become part of the backdrop), along with “upward social comparison” (if you succeed in keeping up with the Joneses, you’ll just pick new Joneses to try to keep up with). But the Diderot effect adds a twist. We use possessions to help construct our identities, and we need those identities to feel consistent. A consistently shabbily dressed person might be signalling that her mind’s on higher matters; a consistently smart one that she values good taste. But someone who’s a random mixture of both just seems weird. In the words of the anthropologist Grant McCracken, products are deliberately marketed in “Diderot unities” – groups whereby, once you’ve purchased one, you’ll feel you need the others. Now that you’re ordering that new dining table from the catalogue, shouldn’t you consider those glasses and plates, too?