Mimetic Desire

Mimetic desire is desire according to another, or desire according to a model.

Imitation is the force that shapes human desire. People desire things because someone else—a model—did first. 

When he was in early twenties, René Girard got his first glimpse into the structure of desire. During his university studies in France, he fell in love.

After a short and intense period of courtship, he settled down into a stable relationship with his girlfriend. Then things changed in an instant. His girlfriend asked him if he wanted to get married.

Right away, he experienced a decrease in desire. He quickly backed off. It wasn’t long before he ended the relationship.

She accepted it, went her own way, and began dating other men.

Then, suddenly, he was drawn back to her again. He noticed something that he found curious—and troubling. The more she denied herself to him, the more he wanted her.

It was as if her desire for him somehow affected his desire for her.  “I suddenly realized that she was both object and mediator for me—some kind of model,” he said. He became reattracted to her not because he suddenly saw some new quality in her that he hadn’t seen in her before; he became reattracted to her because she denied herself to him. She was modeling to him what he should want.

Girard wouldn’t fully grasp what was happening until many years later when he saw this same dynamic playing out through human history and in current events. But even then, in his short romance, he saw that there was more to desire than most people believe—especially the hidden role of a model.

The advertising and fashion industries have known this for decades. The creative agencies behind Superbowl commercials don’t simply show us the things they want us to buy. They almost always show us other people wanting the things they want us to buy.

Apple’s iconic “1984” commercial doesn’t tout the technical merits of the new Apple computer; it shows a beautiful blonde athlete throwing a sledgehammer through the face of a man representing conformity (“Big Brother”). The woman in the commercial is a model—she makes it more likely that viewers will now want to battle conformity, too. (Of course, buying an Apple computer is the best way to do that.)

People choose computers, food, and fashion at least as much with their mimetic brains, or imitative brains, as with their rational brains. Consider craft beer: did millions of amateur beer drinkers decide, almost simultaneously, that I.P.A.’s are (obviously) better than good Belgian ales? Not only do I disagree, but I don’t buy their illusion of autonomy.

But these are just things. Far more important are the deeper mimetic desires to be a certain way—the desire for moral positions, recognition, spouses, schools, job titles and dreams.

            We’re immersed in it.

A young girl posts a selfie to Instagram. She’s beaming next to her new boyfriend at a sushi restaurant. Her ex, who she hasn’t heard from in months, starts texting her the next day.

A college guy with a new girlfriend introduces her to every guy he knows, secretly hoping that they’ll want her, too. When he senses that they don’t, he begins to doubt that he made the right choice.

Five-year old Caleb finds a shiny red toy dump truck in the corner of his classroom that none of the other kids seemed to care about. As soon he expresses an interest in it, there’s an all-out war. Everyone wants to play with the cool new toy.

Tim, a university freshman chooses to major in accounting because his friend (who seems like he has it all together) wants to be an accounting major. When he realizes later in life that he is miserable doing other peoples’ taxes—long after his model is gone—the mimetic nature of his desire to be an accounting major is revealed.

Imitating a model is not dangerous if the desire is for something that is abundant and sharable—drinking a mass-produced wine, watching Game of Thrones, or getting into a large state school with a 90% acceptance rate.

But things get more complicated when we imitate the desire for objects that are scarce and can’t easily be shared. According to economists, that’s a lot of things.

For more a detailed, illustrated guide visit the page on author Luke Burgis’s website on Mimetic Desire 101.