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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Stec

Tell me what you want (what you really really want)

Girard's concept of mimetic desire, or wanting a thing because others want it


"I don't walk around trying to be what I'm not I don't waste my time trying to get what you got"

—Erykah Badu, “Appletree”


Imitation of Facial and Manual Gestures by Human Neonates (1977)

Imitation Machines

The picture above shows the research psychologist Andrew Meltzoff making funny faces to a cute 2-week-old infant, who is (impressively!) making those same faces right back to him.

The photos are from a remarkable 1977 study in Science that showed humans are born with an innate ability to imitate other humans.

Further research showed this ability to imitate is actually hardwired into the brain. In a 2018 study, magnetoencephalography (MEG) scans of the brain showed that “when a child sees an adult being touched by an object… the MEG shows the same part of the brain activate in the child as if the child was being touched themselves.” In other words, when we watch someone doing something, our brain lights up as if we were doing it too.

Our brain is hardwired to follow, learn from, and imitate others. We are imitation machines. We are like the research subjects in Stanley Milgram’s 1969 study, craning our necks to look up at the sky because there is already a small group doing the same thing.

Note on the drawing power of crowds of different size (1969) I recently went to Love City Brewery and arrived a few minutes before my friends. Naturally, as one does at a brewery, I ordered a Moscow Mule. When my friends later arrived, two of them saw my drink and ordered the same. Imitation machines.


James Bond: [to the bartender in the casino] Three measures of Gordon's; one of vodka; half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it over ice, and add a thin slice of lemon peel. Bartender: Yes, sir. Tomelli: You know, I'll have one of those. Infante: So will I. Bartender: Certainly. Casino Royale (2006)


Most people firmly believe they determine their desires on their own, independent of what others say or do. But thinker René Girard notably called this the Romantic Lie. Instead, Girard argued people desire things because other people also desire them. People unconsciously imitate the wants of others… often because, as we've already seen, the human brain is just so good at it. Girard referred to wanting what other people want mimetic desire. It sounds complex, but think of it as coming from the word to mimic, or imitate. Imitated desire. We typically imitate the wants of people closest to us, our family, our friends, our co-workers. These people are our models. Mimetic desires affect the careers we choose, the houses we buy, the people we date, and the ostensibly unbiased political opinions we form. We see what our models want and we unconsciously want those objects, goals, or values too. (Even if we really don't want those things). It's an important, yet supremely underrated, concept. Let's learn more.

Let's get the ball rolling here with a few examples of mimetic desires:

  • Wanting to try a new (even unproven) diet because a close friend has tried it

  • Wanting a new car, even if that means taking out yet another loan, because a neighbor has a new one

  • Wanting a Patagonia vest with your venerable institution’s logo printed on the top right corner

  • Wanting a job at [insert prestigious company here] because other people around you want a job there

  • Wanting “to go to Burning Man”

  • Wanting Birkinstocks in the 90’s, Uggs in the 2000’s, and Yeezy’s in the 2010’s because… well so did a lot of other people at the time

Mimetic desires also work in reverse: how about not wanting to date someone if your friends don’t find her attractive. You get nervous: why don’t they what I why want? Mimetic desires affect career choice. I saw a recent tweet that went something like,

“So many NBA players want to be venture capitalists, and so many venture capitalists really want to be Stoic philosophers.”

I’ll add to that: so many young consultants want to be product managers at FAANGMULA. So many comedians want to be musicians, and so many musicians want to be comedians (sorry, John Mayer). Is the grass always greener because our desires tell us so? Social Impacts One could argue mimetic desires are not a bug but a feature of human beings, who function in highly complex social civilizations. Our love of imitation allows us to learn from others quickly and probably plays a role in our ability to empathize with others. If we see a large crowd start to run frantically in one direction, it’s certainly helpful to feel an urgency to run with them. But mimetic desires also play a key role in many of the negative social phenomena that tear at the fabric of society. Asset bubbles are highly mimetic, being driven by people’s desire to achieve the same high returns they see their neighbors (or servants) attaining. Mimetic desire drove a FOMO-ridden Sir Isaac Newton to invest at the peak of the South Sea bubble, an investment that erased much of his well-earned fortune when the bubble eventually did burst. This caused him to famously remark,

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”

Right on, Newt. Girard even believed mimetic forces cause most human conflicts, which he argued are caused not by groups wanting different things but actually wanting the same things. Consider the Israelis and the Palestinians, who both want the same territory (I'm simplifying). Or Pi Kapp Alpha and Pi Kappa Psi, who both want to be kings of the same campus (and hold-up the same trophy for winning the annual tug of war match). Mimetic forces draw these rival groups into fierce, sometimes violent encounters, as each group wants more and more what the other also wants. Full Circle It’s not my call to say whether mimetic desires are ultimately, on balance, a good or bad thing. All I know is that they exist, both at a societal and individual level. And that it’s probably better to be aware of them than risk letting them yank you around like a puppeteer yanks a marionette. I’ve read a few articles on this stuff, but I still feel the strings just the same. The story doesn't need to end here. If your curious about diving deeper into mimetic desires, I’d highly recommend Luke Burgis’s book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. He spends a solid portion of the second part of the book expanding upon what we can do to target and deal with the inevitable mimetic desires that pull at us. He’s also written a great summary of the book on his website here. As a close, I thought I’d share a thought experiment from his website that I’ve found helpful for short-circuiting some mimetic desires at the individual level. Imagine you didn’t have all of the nice things you currently have. Now imagine you met someone who had all of those things instead. Would you be jealous of that person? You probably would be. It’s just a simple way to turn inward and feel some gratitude for what you have. And also cut off a little bit of that wanting.



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