What makes you, ‘you’? You know you’re ‘you’, because you can remember being ‘you’. What if you woke up tomorrow without your memory? A blank slate. Some aspects of you would stay the same: you’d still look the same, for instance. But nothing about your behavior would be consistent. Your friends and family would instantly know something was wrong, because you wouldn’t recognize them in the street. You wouldn’t remember any of the good times you had. You wouldn’t have had any of the formative experiences that makes you, ‘you’. So some of what defines ‘you’ is from the perspective of people who know you. If anyone who ever met you had their memories wiped too, and all all electronic records on you were erased, what you think of as ‘you’ would cease to exist.
So what makes you a persistent entity through time and space is largely down to memory. Every morning you wake up and remember who you are. You try to remain internally consistent. You have your habits, quirks, sayings. When deciding what to do you try to remember what worked in similar situations for you before. You try to buy the same brand products, because why take a risk? Intentionally taking an action we normally wouldn’t feels wrong, because it’s not what your own brain predicted you would do. Even accidentally doing something out of character pains us with regret, because it’s inconsistent with our pciture of who we are.
Our friends, family, coworkers, are all in on the game: when we’re not acting like ourselves, they nudge us back to the person they remember. There can be severe social reprocussions for someone who changes for the worse (from the perspective of those around them), with the ultimate punishment being ostracisation. A fate worse than death, for social animals like humans. In fact ostracism very often meant death in prehistoric times, when harsher economics meant we couldn’t survive without our tribe. We inherit the memes of those around us: everything from language to culture and preferences. So forms the mechanism that makes us the “average of the five people we spend the most time with”. It’s what explains why us and our parents are so similar, over and above what can be explained by genetics.
Our parents are the first people who serve as models of behavior. Though as we attend school our attention shifts to our teachers, or fellow classmates, to define how we should act. Entering adulthood we choose our models from a wider pool, particularly in the digital age when you can admire the smartest, most attractive, or richest person in the world, rather than just the best of our village. They tell us what to want, as we imitate their perceived desires, as philosopher Rene Girard uncovered: “We don't even know what our desire is. We ask other people to tell us our desires. We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths - but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack.” To serve as an effective model, a person must be successful along a dimension we already value. Then those values change over time, influenced by those we choose as models.
Imitation is a form of flattery, and we are hardwired to enjoy it when someone copies us. But not too closely, because memes have saturation points. If too many people copy something too widely, it gets worn out, and the crowds look for something novel to turn their gaze to. So while the general population is busy imitating celebrities, the celebrities themselves are desperately looking for the next trend. They know if they miss the next wave coming, they get thrown off the board. Where do they look for novelty? Counter-culture. Those that don’t care and aren’t trying to be copied. Only they have the time to experiment with something original. Their first principles thinking leads them to conclusions you can’t get to reasoning by analogy. By definition there’s no analogy for something that hasn’t happened before. You have to be free of the confines of memetic desire to be able to discover something truly original. Being truly authentic is the only way to influence the influencers.
What is Mimetic Theory? A Summary of Things Hidden Since The Foundation of the World by Rene Girard
You're The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With