I got a pretty severe summer haircut this week. I didn’t realise it was quite so brutal until everyone I met later that day said “Now, that’s a haircut!”
To be fair I did ask for it to be shorter than usual but didn’t pay enough attention when my hairdresser said “Right, you asked for it!”
I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for over ten years and the chap wielding the scissors is brilliant. He’s a great conversationalist. I hear him chatting to all sorts of different people and he has a supernatural ability to make everybody, whoever they are, feel comfortable and at ease.
Every time I visit we chat about our recent or upcoming cultural highlights, how business is going and what social or family plans we have lined up.
Each January we discuss what our goals are for the coming year. And every year without fail he tells me his resolution for the upcoming twelve months is to avoid sleeping with any women. It’s a goal he’s proudly achieved for his whole life so far.
Like the best character Little Britain never wrote my hairdresser is as camp as a purple tent (his words) and calls me “sweetheart” and “gorgeous”. To complete the stereotype he sports risque, chunky silver jewellery and has a penchant for clothes shopping.
And it was extreme shopping habits we were chatting about while he took some industrial shears to my head last week. I told him the story of Denis Diderot and the effect named after him.
Denis Diderot was a French philosopher who was a big name in the 1700s. A very bright chap he co founded and wrote the most famous encyclopedia of his age. Sadly he wasn’t much of a businessman and despite his literary talents was permanently broke.
When he was 52 years old his daughter was due to be married but Diderot didn’t have the readies to afford a dowry. Not a great situation but fortunately for him Catherine the Great was a fan of his Encyclopedia and she stepped in to help. The Empress of Russia bought his library from him for a huge sum of cold hard cash. As you do.
Diderot was now able to pay for his daughter’s wedding and then some. With some of his spare money he treated himself and bought an expensive new scarlet robe.
“That sounds lovely!” said my hairdresser.
“Yes, but that’s when everything messed up,” I replied.
See, what happened next was that although his shiny new robe was indeed magnificent, it seemed out of place next to his existing wardrobe. In fact all the other items he owned seemed drab and uninspiring. He felt at odds wearing his fine robe while sitting on a tired, dowdy straw chair.
Diderot wrote about how miserable this made him and bemoaned the fact that there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.”
So, in a move that many of us will no doubt recognise, he went out shopping to buy a few nice things that would match.
I Want It All
Soon he’d snapped up a beautiful tapestry from Damascus, new paintings, new prints, a new chair, an armoire (whatever that is), a new mirror and an expensive clock.
His whole apartment was changed completely. “The imperious dressing gown had imposed her new harmony” wrote Diderot.
These reactive purchases have become known as the Diderot Effect. It describes our desire for unity and how it shapes what we spend our money on.
The Diderot Effect explains the pattern of ever increasing purchases generated by one initial impulse buy. The consequence is that we feel a desire to acquire more and more things. Stuff that we previously didn’t seem to need to feel satisfied.
Hairdresser On Fire
Now at this point I should emphasise that the Diderot Effect is meant to be seen as a warning, a pattern to avoid. My hairdresser took a wholly different viewpoint.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “Now I can explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Can I call it a syndrome instead of effect? I proudly suffer from The Diderot Syndrome!”
So what you do with this information about the Diderot Effect is entirely up to you. But if you view it as a Top Tip for controlling your shopping habits you might be able to spot a pattern of spending and then react positively.
Personally, we fell into this trap during the first lockdown. Because no one was likely to come to my office for a good few weeks, months or goodness knows how long, we moved it upstairs and converted our guest bedroom into my new workspace.
The newly emancipated downstairs room became a cosy lounge and because we were going to be stuck at home for a while we bought a massive telly to keep the entertainment levels high.
Everything's For Sale
And then it started . . . because my single seater coaching chairs weren’t exactly ideal for kicking back with Netflix we bought a sofa set, so we could stretch out and watch the new TV in comfort.
And then we realised that the ancient scruffy hand-me-down hardwood tables we'd moved in just didn’t cut the mustard next to our lovely new sofa. We flashed the plastic and suddenly there they were: a smart glass and chrome coffee and lamp table set.
And then of course we realised the lamp on the lamp table was scruffy beyond belief and so we bought a smart new one.
And then we read about the Diderot Effect and decided “No more!”
A Short Term Effect
The Diderot Effect can easily take you into unnecessarily spending. Goods aren’t bought in isolation, just for their function and utility.
We buy them to unify a feeling or image that we identify with. An ideal that represents who we think we are or what status we want to portray. And if we're not careful spending to achieve that might never end.
So this weekend enjoy looking over your possessions, your clothes, your kitchen appliances, your furniture, your home decorations and ask yourself why you bought them. What was the motivation behind the purchase and how many of them, if any, were driven by the Diderot Effect.
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