Executive Editor

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional Remodelersalfano@sgcmail.com, 202.365.9070

The Diderot Effect

You probably get work from past customers and referrals without really trying. Imagine what might happen if you leaned into it.

November 21, 2019
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A friend recently followed up on a bathroom addition about which she had asked me for advice and that was now completed. She said she was very happy with the work, but also mentioned an unexpected side effect: Compared to the new space, which she described as a “palace,” her existing bathroom now looked “pretty ratty.” As a result, she and the remodeler had begun talking about what to remodel next.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Dissatisfaction with current possessions after making a new purchase is a common experience. It’s so common, in fact, that the anthropologist Grant McCracken, in his 1988 book Culture and Consumption, coined a term to describe it. He called it the Diderot effect.

The phrase refers to French philosopher, Denis Diderot, who in his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” describes how, after receiving an elegant scarlet robe as a gift, other articles of clothing appeared shabby by comparison. This perception soon spread to his other possessions until, he writes, “All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.” In the end, Diderot went into debt upgrading not just his wardrobe but most of his furnishings with items that were more in keeping with the new robe.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

As commonly understood, the Diderot effect retains the negative connotation its namesake originally attached to it. It’s often used to lament the undesirable consequences of runaway consumption to consumers’ social and psychological well-being.

That said, if you’re a remodeler, the upside of the Diderot effect is its inevitability. Except in the case of a completely botched design or poorly executed installation, trying not to compare new space to old space is like trying to not think of an elephant. And once compared, the new space always wins. It may take a while for homeowners to act, but sooner or later the need to upgrade another existing space will overcome the inertia of the status quo.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is a similar phenomenon, except with an external stimulus rooted in the drive to maintain social status. A neighbor adds an enclosed porch with second-story master suite, and suddenly everyone on the block feels the need to add one, too. 

In a similar way, the Diderot effect works vicariously on friends and neighbors. Most people are dissatisfied with something about their house. It could be a big thing, like not having enough bedrooms or needing a second bathroom or having a garage so full of stuff there’s no room for the car; or it could be a small thing, like inefficient closets, lack of natural light, or paint that has lost its luster. Whatever it is, the dissatisfaction it causes is a constant irritant, like a stone in their shoe, and eventually it will demand their attention. A remodeling project in the neighborhood is often the catalyst, because when someone in the neighborhood finally gets around to removing their irritant, the whole block feels the relief, however faintly. But the relief is short-lived except for the family that actually solved their problem; everyone else wakes up tomorrow to the same old irritant. 

Helping Nature Take Its Course

It doesn’t take much to get this ball rolling. Most of you already get a high percentage of your work from past customers and referrals without really trying. Imagine what might happen if you leaned into it. The holiday season gives you a perfect excuse to reach out to past customers. Whether you mail a greeting card or drop off a gift basket, the point is to make contact, and to mention how much you’re looking forward to the next project (or words to that effect).

As for neighbors, job signs are effective, but why not communicate more directly with surrounding homeowners? It could be a door hanger announcing the start of the project, or an invitation to participate in a Dumpster Day, or an open house at project completion. 

Whatever you do, what matters most is giving people an opportunity to see the new work. They will inevitably try to not think of an elephant.

After that, just let nature take its course.

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