Why We Want Things We Don’t Need


Like most people, I sometimes struggle to throw away items that I have no use for in my life. Magazines, newspapers, old clothes… What if I need them one day?  I still have my music books from high school. 

According to experts, we normally don't throw things away because we fear that we will lose the memory or experience associated with the object. And some people see the usefulness in everything, even in items many of us would regard as junk, like an old nail or a ripped shoelace.

Why is it so hard to let go of possessions? 

To avoid buying things we don't need, you've got to dig deeper. You've got to understand the root of it – because it's all emotional and psychological!

The famous French philosopher Denis Diderot lived nearly his entire life in poverty, but that all changed in 1765.

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Diderot was 52 years old and his daughter was about to be married, but he could not afford to provide a dowry. Despite his lack of wealth, Diderot’s name was well-known because he was the co-founder and writer of Encyclopédie, one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the time.

When Catherine the Great, the emperor of Russia, heard of Diderot’s financial troubles she offered to buy his library from him for £1000 GBP, which is approximately R17,470.37. Suddenly, Diderot had money to spare.

Diderot’s scarlet robe was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that he immediately noticed how out of place it seemed when surrounded by the rest of his common possessions. In his words, there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” between his robe and the rest of his items. The philosopher soon felt the urge to buy some new things to match the beauty of his robe.

He replaced his old rug with a new one from Damascus. He decorated his home with beautiful sculptures and a better kitchen table. He bought a new mirror to place above the mantle and his “straw chair was relegated to the antechamber by a leather chair.”


These reactive purchases have become known as the Diderot Effect.

Shortly after this lucky sale, Diderot acquired a new scarlet robe. That’s when everything went wrong.

The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled.

Here are a few ways to assist in mastering this phenomenon:

- Reduce exposure. One of the quickest ways to reduce the power of the Diderot Effect is to avoid the habit triggers that cause it in the first place. Unsubscribe from commercial emails. Call the magazines that send you catalogues and opt out of their mailings. Meet friends at the park rather than the mall. Block your favourite shopping websites using tools like https://freedom.to/.

- Buy items that fit your current system. You don’t have to start from scratch each time you buy something new. When you purchase new clothes, look for items that work well with your current wardrobe. When you upgrade to new electronics, get compatible equipment so you can avoid buying new chargers, adapters, or cables.

- Cooling off period. Give yourself pause for thought before spending money. Online purchases, in particular, can be impulse buys. Add an item to your virtual shopping trolley but wait 24 hours before returning to complete the purchase. This will allow you time to consider if you really need that item.

- Go one month without buying something new. Don’t allow yourself to buy any new items for one month. Instead of buying a new lawn mower, rent one from a neighbour or buy ‘as-new’ second hand.

- Let go of wanting things. There will never be a level where you will be done wanting things. There is always something to upgrade to. Realize that wanting is just an option your mind provides, not an order you have to follow.

Spending time getting to know as many of your wants as you can and finding out the results they have in store for you can be intriguing and even fun. The more pieces of the puzzle you can find, the more you will learn about yourself and all that is important to you. It’s a journey only you can take.

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