Back in the late 1700s, French philosopher Denis Diderot found himself broke. But he lucked out when Catherine the Great heard he couldn’t afford to pay for his daughter’s wedding and she stepped in to give him a huge wad of cash.

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Feeling flush, he bought himself a new red robe. Then this happened…

He immediately felt his other possessions looked flabby in contrast to his new robe. So he bought a new rug. Then some sculptures. Then…and on it went. Until he was once again unable to afford the wedding.

This is the Diderot Effect: when you buy stuff that then creates a spiral of empty consumption.

I’ve said this many times before, shopping begets shopping. You go to The Shops and it compels you to make the most of your visit and you find yourself buying stuff you don’t really need. You figure you should just grab two rolls of wrapping paper because they’re 2-for-1 and buy another sheet set because they’re 20 per cent off.

Or you buy a yoga top. And then get sucked into the matching leggings and matching tote bag and matching drink bottle. None of which you need.

Or you simply go to IKEA and come home with tea light candles. End of story.

The Diderot Effect is exactly what the Big Brands want you to get sucked into. Don’t. Just don’t.

It’s criminal to buy stuff we don’t need. It just is.

The best trick I can offer for avoiding the Diderot Effect is to simply not go to The Shops. For as long as possible. And make do. And fend and improvise. It’s infinitely more fun.


Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Kaz

    Haha, yes the Diderot Effect is indeed a very real phenomenon. Where I notice it I try to nip it in the bud. But, and I hope to say this without coming over harshly, but I disagree as well. Buying what you don’t need is not “criminal”, that’s a pretty extremist attitude, IMO. What’s the definition of “need” anyway? How extreme do we get here? It’s pretty subjective. Who am I to spend money on a Christmas turkey when there are starving people in the world etc etc

    Its like people who say you must not have any children because the world is already over populated. I think the issue is a little more complex than that. Am I criminal because I was going to buy myself Simpilicious for Christmas? Why do I really need it? I already have several other of your books, both digital and print – with recipes I haven’t tried yet.

    I’m a big fan of yours, Sarah. I have benefitted tremendously from your “go gently and kindly” approach to quitting sugar. You know, don’t focus on dogmatically banning foods but rather crowd out with the good stuff. So too, approaching overconsumption with “you criminal!”- flavour statements is off putting. “Crowding out” with focusing on the good stuff eg the joys of getting out with friends for a walk rather than spending Saturday at the shops. Or how good it feels to save rather than spend or the pleasure of creating things yourself. All fine by me. Not so comfy with the blanket statements and extremism, especially from someone who regularly tempts me to buy more stuff I personally don’t need! The whole consumer-culture thing is a massive topic. More than happy to stand corrected, but wanted to share my thoughts.
    With respect.

    • Angela

      I agree. Although there is a lot of shopping to excess, and, some people do enjoy shopping as an “outing”, which I do not think is healthy, I don’t agree with Sarah whole-heartedly. I see Sarah’s point, but, the Friday email that was sent to me came complete with advertising for Eva Perez make-up. Do we need make-up? Could we make do with what we already have, or even go make-up free? Of course we could. If I were to buy more make-up, then I’d be “over” shopping. It hardly makes it a criminal offence. However, we do live in a capitalist economy, and many of us enjoy employment thanks to people buying products that they don’t need.

    • I hear what you say re the books. I do consider books permanent purchases (not disposable). And I don’t think many people buy them impulsively on a whim.

      • Kaz

        OK, well buying mindfully I can do. Being a crim because I buy what I don’t need…not so much 🙂 Good to clarify.

      • Loucas Gatzoulis

        you haven’t obviously seen me in a bookstore :p
        Jokes aside (and books & music excluded) what you are saying is absolutely correct. Personally, I have found my equilibrium by adopting a theory of maintaining the balance. In other words, if I want to buy something that in theory I don’t need (e.g. this brand new shinny pair of running shoes), I have to throw away, give to charity, one of my two current pairs. Most of the times, even considering this adds the required rationalisation to rethink (and eventually cancel) an impulsive purchase.

  • I 100% subscribe to the ‘just don’t go to the shops’ theory! It really works!

    And I respectfully disagree with commenter Kaz below. There is a big difference between spending mindfully on things that give us pleasure … and mindlessly spending on things simply because they’re there to be bought

    • I think this is true. I wear makeup sometimes. I choose brands carefully. I don’t impulse buy. We all have to find our own “halfway” point.

  • Rudy Haugeneder

    It even happens at charity run thrift stores — buying stuff you didn’t want or need but purchasing it anyway because the urge to buy suddenly terrifies you to buy, buy, buy!

  • San

    Thanks for the interesting article. The effect resonates with me – and I find it surprisingly easy to get along with the stuff I already have, when I do not go to the shops, because of a lack of money or time, or motivation. I often buy on-line, as I believe I am more careful then, and I am able to search for, say a SIMPLE black top or so, without pattern, metal applications, etc etc, requiring even more clothes to match and swap. Thanks again, Sarah, for sharpening my shopping awareness.

  • Tamara Armstrong

    As a 21 year old I used to love shopping and going to the bigger shopping centres, but after I moved to a tiny country town for work I wasn’t able to go anymore – because there weren’t any in a 4 hour driving radius. Now that I live closer to shops I never bother going as I really really hate them. Yes the Diderot effect is a big reason for that, but even more so they just have this really horrible energy about them. I feel it even pulling into a carpark. I went into one yesterday near the suburb I grew up in, to buy movie ticket vouchers for my Mum for Christmas and I seriously wanted to scratch my skin off. It felt that awful. I should have bought them online, but I left it too late.

    • Kaz

      I agree, Tamara. There’s a really unpleasant vibe at shopping centres. I find them very depressing. I get the opposite feeling when I am in nature / my garden. It’s energising and alive.

      • Tamara Armstrong

        So very depressing and empty feeling. Yes let’s all stick with nature. I get that energising feeling from my garden as well. I’m giving plants to most of my family this Christmas, they all got them for their birthdays this year as well.

  • Slim Birdy

    Years ago I found myself shopping just as an outing. I used to do it every weekend. Not buying much mind you but looking and trying on clothes etc, it was like I was brainwashed as a 20 year old to believe that is what you are supposed to do. So once I was aware I decided then to stop shopping for a year – no clothes, no appliances, no shoes, no anything for myself unless it was food. And it changed my life. I didn’t actually need anything, it was like I was using shopping as a hobby. Now that lesson still sticks and I don’t buy anything unless something completely wears out and there is nothing else in the house that would do instead. And I found friends who work in fashion retail actually gave me more clothes anyway!

  • Mina

    So many thought provoking, intelligent view points. I’d like to add my two cents, not necessarily in a less intelligent way, but just a simpler way: I just unsubscribed from Groupon, Scoopon, Cudo etc. for that very reason. I don’t need a shoulder strap, or a drink bottle that I can put my fruit in, although I love those Swarovski crystal watches…it all adds up in the end…and I never did use that shoulder strap…

  • Gabby

    I’m with you, mindless spending and consumerism is a huge problem and no good comes of it. But this message feels a little dogmatic. If you enjoy lighting candles when you take a bath, then buy the candles. If you want a special blanket to wrap around yourself when you read a book, then buy one. But if you can find the same content that’s in a book online, then maybe *don’t* buy the book. Or borrow it from one of those amazing places we all seem to have forgotten: the library. Or borrow it from a friend. Books aren’t exempt in the conversation about consumerism. There are plenty of unread books sitting unopened and unread on bookshelves. Permanent purchases aren’t necessary positive purchase and can be just as mindless. (And just as an aside, I work in book publishing and I own hundreds of books, many not read and perhaps never will be — I had the best intentions at the point of sale, of course.)

  • Joan

    Online shopping makes it even worse for some

  • Gabi Gorin

    avoiding the shops to curb the spending was the only thing that helped me. 4 years ago I left my full-time job to go back to uni and so had much less money to spend. So I just stopped going on shops completely during that time (other than for food!). What I found was that I started being more aware (and irritated) of the clutter that was already in my house. So I gradually started clearing my cupboards of things I didn’t use and taking it to charity shops or car boot sales . That felt more satisfying than spending! I’ve started going in shops again recently but i really have to stop myself in my tracks sometimes and ask ‘do I really need this?’ ‘will it benefit my health and well-being? (or the health and wellbeing of someone else)’. It’s helped me become more mindful around consuming, which feels good! 🙂