The Diderot effect

Isn’t it great when you learn a new word and realise you’ve been looking for it for years.

Now that its January (new year new me) I started listening to the ‘Atomic Habits’ audiobook. I bought it when my boss recommended it in 2021 and its taken me a while to bring myself to listen to it. Partly because I knew it would be very persuasive at getting my act together, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of having all these clever techniques for habit change and *still* being lazy af.

The book so far alternates between being cringe with cheesy sports anecdotes to being nicely insightful on the way humans act. Unfortunately you can’t tell whether the next bit will be cringe or insightful so you have to just power through.

The book just taught me a new concept: ‘The Diderot Effect‘. You can read about it on Wikipedia but its essentially the phenomenon of an expensive purchase creating a need for more fancy things to match it.

The idea that if you get a £200 belt for Christmas, then you’re going to feel stupid wrapping it around a £15 pair of jeans. The Diderot effect means you want a nice pair of pants to match, then shoes, then a shirt, and so on….

In 2016 before I started seriously losing weight, the Diderot effect weirdly was at work on me. I bought myself a lovely minimalist wallet with room for 4 cards. The previous wallet had been a fat leather chunk of a wallet with room for about 20 cards. My lovely new wallet didn’t really match my 120kg aesthetic; “why would someone so fat have such a tiny wallet” I thought to myself. And this became an incentive to lose weight… to match the wallet…

These funny subconscious feelings I’ve been having about buying stuff, now have a name.

I’ve had a similar feeling when wanting to splash £1k on the newest iPhone. Like, where is the co-ordination between this crystal bar of the planet’s most advanced technology, and my chipped and peeling ikea office desk. My desk where the drawer front keeps coming loose and threatening to fall of. This desk that I got for free from the last owner of our house because she didn’t want the trouble of moving it downstairs.

Perhaps its because this mis-match exposes our choices, our values, to the outside world and ourselves. By upgrading the iPhone I implicitly decided not to upgrade my desk and maybe there’s a tension there.

Where is the co-ordination between the iPhone 15 Pro and my thinning hair. Surely someone with hair like mine should have nothing flashier than an iPhone 12. Here is a man who made a choice – and decided he was okay with *that* hair? He got a new phone with the money that better men would’ve spent on a little trip to Turkey.







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