We’re all so preoccupied with getting what we want, that almost no one stops to think about why we want it in the first place. Not so for René Girard, a twentieth-century French anthropologist who developed the theory of Mimetic Desire. He proposed that we want things because other people want them. Whether it’s ordering the same drink as a friend in a bar, buying the same furniture as your neighbor (66% of people do!), or developing shared interests with your family, we look to ‘models’ to decide what is worth wanting.
Models are people who seem farther up on the path we’re on – they could be celebrities, friends or neighbors – not necessarily better in every way, but observably successful along a dimension we care about. They must be similar enough to us for their desires to be relevant, but they must possess some quality or status that we do not. It’s a common reaction when reading Girard to think “I’m not that easily influenced”, but once you see it, you start to see it everywhere, including in yourself. In popular culture being an independent thinker is prized, but in reality on most topics people prefer the comfort of following the crowd, subconsciously or not. Emulating the wants and desires of others shouldn’t be anything to be ashamed of. In fact Mimesis as an evolutionary strategy makes perfect sense: if someone similar but superior to us is doing something, the risk that it’s the wrong thing to do is significantly decreased! It also works in reverse: we’ll often decide to take the opposite action of someone that we dislike: we’re still modeling their behavior by doing the opposite.
However Mimesis can also become unhealthy when there’s competition over limited resources. We try to copy those above our station, but too much copying saturates that meme. Celebrities are incentivised to continually differentiate themselves, giving up on a fashion just as it becomes fashionable. Those who are influencer-adjacent flip their focus without regard to hypocrisy, criticising those beneath them for being out of date. This cascades downwards, and the trend falls out of fashion. Mimetic Theory can be a powerful predictor of human behavior. Indeed, Girard’s most famous student, Peter Thiel, credits it for his outstanding career: “[Thiel] gave Facebook its first $500,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media”. That investment became one of the greatest of all time, netting Thiel over $1 billion.
Social networks like Facebook are “doubly mimetic” in that they spread by word of mouth, but are also the medium through which other things spread through word of mouth. Likes, comments, shares, are public signals of other’s desire, and the algorithmic feed is a mechanism for surfacing whatever your friends most desire. As a result our desires converge on the same objects, causing conflict in some cases. To protect ourselves from potential conflict from all wanting the same things, we’ve developed cultural counter-memes, like warnings against “keeping up with the Joneses” and to “love thy neighbor”, as well as the famous Fight Club line “The things you own end up owning you”. The “woke mobs” plaguing social networks today, and modern “cancel culture” would have been readily predicted by Girard, whose work also touched on the scapegoat mechanism used historically to dispel violence. Sacrifice one of us so the rest of us can avoid conflict.
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