Defeat the Diderot Effect in Your Kitchen and Home

If you decide to make any big changes to your kitchen, either by renovating it or buying any new big-ticket appliances or gadgets, beware! There's a disease waiting for you called the Diderot Effect that will cause you to spend far more money than you ever imagined.

What is the Diderot Effect? In its most basic sense, it's a term for a pernicious consumption trap. It's named after a famous essay, Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, by the French philosopher Denis Diderot (for French speakers: Regrets Sur ma Vieille Robe de Chambre). In the essay, Diderot receives a brand new scarlet robe from a friend, only to find that so many other things in his study look shabby by comparison. Ultimately, he finds himself compelled to spend enormous amounts of money to replace practically everything in his room.

It was the anthropologist Grant McCracken, however, who first used Diderot's name to describe human consumption patterns (by the way, McCracken hosts an exceptional blog for those of you interested in learning more about culture and consumer behavior). According to McCracken, human beings strive for a "unity in appearance"--our possessions, clothing, homes and cars must accurately represent what we consider to be our "desired social role."

Okay, this is all very interesting, but what does this have to do with our kitchens? I'll start with the conclusion: Unless you want to be rapidly separated from your money, be very, very careful before you make even the most minor upgrades or renovations to your kitchen.

I'll give an example. Suppose you decide to buy a new refrigerator for your comfortable, homey little kitchen. You've got some money saved up and you can easily afford it, so you decide to buy a high end Sub-Zero. And how excited you are the day the deliverymen arrive and wheel that big, shiny, buffed-steel box into your kitchen!

But a few weeks later, that shiny new fridge starts to look a bit out of place with all of the other old stuff in your kitchen, doesn't it? Maybe it's time you replaced your comfortable, but ratty, table and chairs. And, really, the room ought to be painted, and the floor needs to be ripped out and replaced. And of course now we need granite countertops and new cabinets. And jeez, with all this new stuff, how can we keep our old oven and stove now?

Here's the problem: our kitchens are the site of many of the biggest-ticket items in our homes. Our fridge, dishwasher, stove, oven and sink reside there, as do optional (and coincidentally, also expensive) appliances like wine refrigerators, trash compactors and boiling water dispensers. And of course, who could forget extremely costly decorative features like granite countertops and high end cabinetry where we can demonstrate "our desired social role" by displaying the kitchen gadgets and fancy china that we'll never use?

You didn't know it at the time, but the purchase of that innocent-looking refrigerator set off a chain of events that ultimately cost you ten times the cost of the fridge itself. That fridge isn't really a fridge--it's a shiny, metallic money pit!

That's a textbook example of the Diderot Effect, and it helps explain why it's so easy to get separated from your money when you undertake even the smallest upgrades or renovations to your home. Moreover, the one room in your home where the Diderot Effect is the most contagious and the most costly is your kitchen. In fact, the Diderot Effect is a key source of substantial incremental business for clever contractors and home remodelers, because they know that once we start with our first upgrade, we will keep coming back to spend more to satisfy our need for "unity of appearance."

We like to think that we decide things on purpose, so most people won't (or can't) admit it when they discover, after the fact, that they've embarked on an entire chain of unconscious purchases. But we've all seen our friends and family mindlessly waltz down the Diderot path. And we can't entirely blame our modern consumerist culture for putting these social pressures on us. After all, Diderot wrote his famous essay in the 1700's, long before we started comparing our homes, kitchens, cars and flat screen TVs. The truth is these social pressures have always been there, and it's up to us to resist them.

The worst irony about Diderot was that his comfortable little study became a stiff and sterile room once he finished upgrading it. The room lost its character and it just wasn't the same anymore.

Well, at least everything matched.

Readers! What kinds of experiences have you had like this, and what did you learn from it?
Stay tuned! In Part 2 of this article I'll give six solutions that you can use to defeat the Diderot Effect in your kitchen and home. Look for it in a few days.

Related Posts:
Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs
The Crockpot: How I Admitted I Was Wrong in a Cooking Debate
How to Team Up in the Kitchen
Cooking Like the Stars? Don't Waste Your Money

Related Links:
Grant McCracken's consumer behavior blog
Denis Diderot's Wikipedia page

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martha in mobile said...

My mom bought me a new nightgown when I was 8. She promised me the matching robe for Christmas (6 months later). By the time I got the robe, the nightgown looked very shabby, indeed. My gratitude was, shall we say, "tempered" by my disappointment. Lesson? The Diderot effect is very apparent with anything that is supposed to match. Either buy matched items together, or go for a deliberate mismatch.

Daniel said...

Thanks for sharing Martha, that's a classic example. And I like the idea of the deliberate mismatch.


Anonymous said...

Then there's the "batteries not included effect" - buying something that requires several other purchases just to make it work. This has happened to me with computers, gadgets and also "gifts" I received. Watch out!!

Daniel said...

Anon, great point. I suppose a related issue would be the "some assembly required effect" if it costs you more time than you expect to put something together.

Thanks for the insight.


Koekkener said...

Thank you for sharing this such a very useful and informative article. I hope that you will post more.

Jennifer Galatioto said...

This is really interesting. I will continue wearing all of my dirtbag last years clothing, otherwise I will have to change my entire wardrobe. Like when you buy a new dress for an event, you cannot wear old shoes. I will definitely keep this all in mind and thanks for pointing out the other blog, too.

Kitchen Renovations Toronto said...

Great, and interesting article! SO true! Working in kitchen renovations we don't run into this too often because people are usually planning to make more than one update to their kitchen in our case, but this is a very interesting point made and can be applied to many aspects of our lives.

On a personal note, I've def suffered this affect in other areas of my life - even with something as simple as wardrobe! One or two new things makes you want to update the entire wardrobe...that one little innocent purchase can certainly influence the want to change other things. Thanks for sharing!

Hannah @Cooking Manager said...

The Diderot cost is psychological, and optional. But when people upgrade appliances, they rarely consider cost of energy usage, maintenance and repairs. That sub-zero fridge may use a lot of electricity, and if the electronic control panel breaks it's a fortune to repair. And what kind of detergent does your dishwasher require (we make our own detergent, replace finishing liquid with vinegar and use kosher salt instead of dishwasher salt).

Cheap kitchen gadgets said...

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