Mimetic Desire explained in exactly 500 words
Like all animals, we know what we need. Nourishment, safety, sex. Our needs are limited. Instinctual. Natural. And in today’s world – almost guaranteed.
Our wants, on the other hand, are more complex. Whimsical. Time-consuming. We create them by choosing from a menu of possibilities that changes along with our environment. And boy, has our environment changed. For millennia, we foraged in the wild. Today, we’re being suffocated by abundance.
This abundance makes it fair to expect individual desires within a modern tribe to be totally random. Unique, even.
But they aren’t.
Everywhere you look, you’ll see groups of people who want the same things. The newest iPhone. Gucci handbags. Yeezys. Expensive degrees. And lately – pixelated JPEGS.
Like a bunch of neighboring metronomes that spontaneously synchronize, our desires coalesce with those of our social group. We desire what other humans desire. In other words, our desires are mimetic.
But why does this occur? A few reasons.
Firstly, wants are confusing. It is impossible to know what to want when there’s an endless, ever-changing list to pick from, with no reference point provided by evolution. So we look for social proof. If someone we admire wants something, we assume it must be good enough for us to want it too.
Secondly, we are wired to play status games. High status had evolutionary advantages in our time as hunter-gatherers – it gave us easier access to resources for survival and mates for reproduction. And although we’re not living in jungles anymore, we’re still programmed to play the game, even if we’re only hunting for promotions over our peers at a job that we despise.
Thirdly, we’re signaling machines. By imitating the desires of a person we look up to, we signal to others that we possess some of the qualities of that person. This can be used for signaling to potential mates, as is with folks who imitate the latest fashion trend set by an attractive supermodel, or even for signaling to potential investors, as was the case with Elizabeth Holmes, who managed to pull off the Steve Jobs look for years before she found herself in prison garb.
Mimetic Desire is the reason we become like the people we spend time with or look up to. They shape what we choose to want, often unconsciously. And what we choose to want impacts how we spend our lives.
Since our time is limited, it pays to pay attention to our desires. Escaping them is a futile endeavor for those of us that aren’t monks. Reordering them is more realistic.
So find desires that stand the test of time. Those that don’t result in zero-sum games where you compete with your peers. Those that aren’t in conflict with other desires. Find desires that can create a journey you will enjoy, for the destination is never guaranteed. Prioritize a few of them. Rid yourself of the rest.
And finally, be grateful for your desires that life has already been kind enough to fulfill.
If you’d like to go further down the rabbit hole of Mimetic Desire, I recommend a book called Wanting, by Luke Burgis. For more advanced reading, check out Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, by the French Philosopher René Girard.
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