Mimetic Contagion

In mimetic theory, mimetic contagion refers to the rapid and spontaneous spread of mimetic desires through a society. 

Mimetic Contagion

Mimetic desires may begin small, but as they grow they gain momentum. Mimetic desire leads to mimetic rivalry, which leads to scandal, increasing levels of violence, then scapegoating, and later rationalization. As each stage progresses to the next, the force of desire becomes more contagious.

In this way, mimetic desire is not only social: it is viral

A simple example will illustrate mimetic contagion:

Say there are two high school boys, John and Robert, who are interested in asking the same girl out. At lunch, they confront each other in the cafeteria, and the conversation quickly turns south. One throws a fist. Then the other. A fight breaks out. 

Suddenly John’s friends come to his assistance and Robert’s friends come to his assistance, and now there are a dozen guys throwing punches in the middle. The fight gets bigger. The circle expands. As people gather closer to watch the fight, the cafeteria inevitably gets louder and rowdier from the commotion. And those who are standing closest to the fight inevitably get pulled in. 

Mimetic contagion is kind of like that. The initial desire and the effects of rivalrous desire escalate and ripple outward, increasing in violence until something or someone (a scapegoat) assumes the blame for the violence. As in the cafeteria example above, once the desire (or fight) has reached the contagion level, it is not always possible to trace it back to its root cause.    


Mimetic desire is constantly happening, and the point is not to be able to diagnose how or why it began but to be acutely aware of its power. Wherever there is an outbreak of social concern, look for a fresh case of mimetic contagion.