In her book, The Overspent American (Perennial), Harvard economist Juliet Schor quotes an essay written by the 18th Century French philosopher, Denis Diderot, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.”


Diderot’s regrets were prompted by a gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. Thrilled with his new acquisition, Diderot quickly discarded his old gown. But in a short time, his pleasure turned sour as he began to sense that the surroundings in the room where he wore the gown were worn. He’d not noticed this before, but suddenly the place looked downright shabby. This certainly did not properly reflect the garment’s elegance.

He quickly grew dissatisfied with his study, with its threadbare tapestry, the desk, his chairs, and even the room’s bookshelves. One by one he replaced the familiar but well-worn furnishings of the study.

In the end, Diderot found himself seated uncomfortably in the stylish formality of his new surroundings, regretting the work of this “imperious scarlet robe [that] forced everything else to conform with its own elegant tone.”

Today, consumer researchers call all this striving for conformity the “Diderot Effect.” And while the effect can be overcome if a person foresees the problem and refuses the initial upgrading,  the pressures to enter and follow the cycle can be overwhelming.

The purchase of a new home creates a need to replace old furniture; a beefed up hard drive  screams for more RAM; an upgrade to new dinnerware can’t really be enjoyed without a corresponding upgrade in glassware.

Quite a few years ago now, I convinced my husband it was time to replace the fluffy pink window coverings in our living and dining room area. That early 1980s look was long past its prime. It didn’t take a professional decorator to figure out the matching wallpaper would have to go as well. And if we’re going to all of that trouble to strip and paint, what about the ugly ceiling? We might as well scrape all that ‘popcorn’ away. And while we’re up there, how about new recessed lighting?

It didn’t take long for the 15-year old seafoam green carpet to rear its ugly pile. Of course the poor-excuse-for-a-chandelier became an issue followed by a discussion that perhaps now is the time to put in the fireplace this room has always needed.

Two years and many thousands of dollars later I can say I learned a little something about the Diderot Effect. His scarlet gown, my pink drapes. It is on the regret issue, however, that our parallel stories break down.

We have no regrets. We did the work ourselves and opted for the pay-as-you-go method. But Mr. Diderot lived to regret his home improvement project. Could it be that he got roped into just 36 easy payments which are, of course, rarely just and never easy—and almost always fill us with regret?

Question: Have you ever experienced the Diderot Effect?