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Mimetic Theory- An Insight Into Our Desires

Mimetic Theory

We all know that life is lived by making choices. Where to work, what to study, which city to live in, whom to marry, what car or house to buy, which stocks to invest in, etc.

The question is – How do we make choices? How do we pick one choice instead of the other?

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to come across the works of the late Rene Girard, a French Philosopher and a professor at Stanford University. While I haven’t read any of his books yet, I got to read a couple of his articles on Mimetic Philosophy that explain, in a thought-provoking way, why humans behave in the way they do.

When it comes to desires, there are two ways we typically explain why we want something.

  1. We want something because it suits our unique preferences. Or,
  2. We desire something because of the objective good qualities something has.

Either way, we believe that our desire is inborn and driven by our own free will.

Girard proposes another theory(in contrast to that of free will) he calls the Mimetic Theory, and he explains it in this simple way.

Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what we desire because we imitate their desires.

Rene Girard

We all pattern our choices on someone else’s example. Mimetic Theory extends beyond mere desire to explain human behavior. When we model our desires on those of others, it is natural that we end up competing for the same schools, same degrees, same jobs, same titles, same social status, same real estate, etc., like everyone else. 

Imagine that you have a friend who invests in real estate because he believes it has potential value. You desire the same thing. Seeing your desire for the same property reinforces your friend’s desire for it even more. When more and more people get caught in this vortex, a real-estate bubble forms. This is the Mimetic Theory at work.

Is it possible for us to have desires that are not based on those of others? 

Rene Girard says imitation and benchmarking are unavoidable. It’s human nature, and we cannot escape the influence of imitation. I found this idea sobering. There is no mental flaw in benchmarking, comparing, and desiring what others desire. It is part of our nature.

That said, just becoming aware of the Mimetic Theory and how it influences our desires will help us be more conscious about the choices we make. More importantly, it will make us more conscious about the people we choose to follow and imitate. 

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