In the 18th century, French philosopher Denis Diderot received a gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown.  I know it’s not something your typical guy today would get too excited about, but remember this was the 1700’s.  In any case, he was delighted with his gift and promptly discarded his old dressing gown.

Within a short time he grew dissatisfied with his surroundings.  They didn’t reflect the elegance of his new robe.  In fact they were downright shabby.

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One by one he started to replace the worn furnishings in his study – the old desk and chairs, the threadbare and faded drapes, and even his old bookshelves – with classy, expensive, new items that properly reflected the look of his new robe.

Soon he plunged into debt.

Diderot wrote an essay called “Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown,” claiming his beautiful new gown had become a curse, not the blessing he first thought.

The Diderot effect

Have you ever noticed how upgrading one thing leads to upgrading something else?

Today, the need to up-sell yourself is known a the “Diderot Effect.”

You know how it goes:

  • You purchase a new house and you need new furniture to fill it.
  • A new skirt needs a new blouse to match.
  • An upgrade in china can’t be enjoyed without a corresponding upgrade in table linens, flatware and glasses for every drinking occasion.
  • A new washing machine needs the matching dryer.
  • That shiny new fridge looks out of place in your dreary kitchen.

As new items are bought the remaining items appear less attractive in comparison.  Each item on a wish list leads to another item, always ascending like an escalator.

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It may cause you to spend more money than you anticipated for an entire chain of new purchases.  It’s easy to fall into the trap.

A work in progress

I fell under the influence of the Diderot Effect when I decided to repaint my living room.  To offset the new colour I painted all the trim a nice fresh white.  To paint the window trim required taking down the poufy window valance – a relic from the 1990’s, long past its prime – so I needed new window coverings.

The old doors looked ugly and dated with the new trim, so off to the home renovation store we went to purchase six new white doors – with all the hardware.  I decided to buy levers instead of round knobs thinking it would be easier to open doors when my hands were full.  (I didn’t consider that every small child that visits now has easy access to each room in my house.)

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Next, the poor excuse for lighting became an issue and now the carpet is rearing its ugly pile.

Final thoughts

Diderot lived to regret his home improvement project.  He hadn’t previously noticed how tattered the old gown was because it was comfortable and blended into his surroundings.

But we have no regrets.  We did the work ourselves and opted for the pay as you go method.  It’s still a work in progress and I’m sure we’ll have to begin all over again when we’re done.

Diderot’s complaint was that his comfortable little study lost its original homey – if shabby – character.  Well, at least everything matched.


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