What Is Mimetic Desire? Origins & Examples

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Wanting" by Luke Burgis. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is mimetic desire? Where did the theory originate? What are some examples of mimetic desire?

In Wanting, Luke Burgis explores the ideas of René Girard, an academic whose theory of “mimetic desire” seeks to explain where our desires originate. According to Girard’s theory, we don’t form our own desires—rather, we imitate what other people want or have.

Read on to learn more about what mimetic desire is, its origins, and examples in our daily lives.

What Is Mimetic Desire?

In Wanting, author Luke Burgis explains what mimetic desire is by going back to its origins—René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire states that most of our desires are mimetic, meaning we mimic what others want or have. “Mimetic” comes from the Greek word mimesthai, meaning “to imitate.” Girard defines desires as objects or experiences we want rather than biologically need. We need basics such as food, water, safety, and shelter. After meeting these needs, we want things such as a nice home and supportive colleagues.

(Shortform note: While Burgis describes how Girard distinguishes needs from desires, he doesn’t explore examples of cravings we have that fail to neatly fit into either category. For instance, is it possible to need food as well as desire food? If it’s your goal to only eat fresh, organic ingredients, is that a need or a desire? It’s unclear whether Girard’s theory of mimetic desire applies to ambiguous cases such as these.)

How Many of Our Desires Are Mimetic?

In his summary of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, Burgis claims that most of our desires are mimetic. However, according to other experts on this theory, Girard argued that all desires are mimetic. Many critics of Girard’s theory question the idea that all or even most of our desires are mimetic. Let’s explore some of these critics’ arguments.

One critic argues that Girard offers ample anecdotes supporting his theory but fails to share empirical evidence supporting his idea that so many of our desires are mimetic. According to this critic, Girard’s anecdotes suggest that mimetic desire exists but fail to provide sufficient evidence that mimetic desire is as influential as Girard claims. 

Another critic argues that we should be skeptical of any theory, such as Girard’s theory, that attempts to explain a majority (or even all) of human behavior. According to this critic, theories that smooth out life’s complexities under a single explanation can promote ignorance. People who study and fully accept Girard’s theory may believe they know the secret workings of everything. This could inspire an inflated, unearned sense of confidence and cause them to overlook other influences on our desires. Later, we’ll explore some of these other influences.

The Origins of Girard’s Theory

How did Girard come up with his theory of mimetic desire? According to Burgis, Girard’s diversity of experiences and interests gave him unique perspectives on human nature. Girard, who immigrated from France to the US following World War II, spent his life teaching university classes and publishing books across a wide variety of subject areas, such as history, philosophy, anthropology, and literature. Because he studied so many topics, he noticed common themes about human desire in everything from ancient texts to modern history. He developed these themes into his theory of mimetic desire, and in 1961 he published these ideas in his first book, Deceit, Desires, and the Novel. Girard continued to develop and share his theory of mimetic desire until his death in 2015.

(Shortform note: There’s a name for the type of thinking that Burgis claims led Girard to develop his theory: syntopical thinking. Syntopical thinking is when you analyze and synthesize ideas by comparing a variety of texts. The term “syntopical” comes from Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, who explore syntopical thinking—specifically syntopical reading—in How to Read a Book. They provide strategies for engaging in this complex type of reading and thinking. For example, after reading several books on a single topic, notice how different authors use different terms to describe the same concept. Next, come up with your own term for that concept. This exercise pushes you to synthesize concepts from multiple texts.)

The Theory of Mimetic Desire Rejects Widely Held Beliefs

What’s unique about Girard’s theory of mimetic desire? First, let’s explore what most people think is the source of our desires. According to Burgis, most people believe that we generate our own desires. Either these desires arise spontaneously from within us (such as the sudden urge to make someone laugh) or from our rational thinking (such as pursuing a desire that supports your financial health).

According to Burgis, Girard’s theory rejects this widely held belief that we generate our own desires: Your desires don’t arise spontaneously—they come from someone else. Even if you think your reasons for desiring something are rational, you actually desire it because someone else desires it or already has it. Girard based these ideas on his observations about character motives in literature as well as what he learned about human behavior through studying anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

For example, imagine you want to move to the city. You may think you desire this because you’ve rationally weighed the pros and cons of city life and determined moving to the city is best for your budget and life goals. However, according to Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, you desire city life simply because people you admire live in cities, and you want what they have.

Other Influences on Our Desires

As we explored earlier, critics of Girard’s theory question the idea that all (or even most) of our desires are mimetic. Let’s explore their claims that other sources also influence our desires.

Some critics of Girard’s theory argue that rational thinking and personal taste shape our desires, supporting the widely held belief that we generate at least some of our desires ourselves. These critics claim that we sometimes pursue desires for rational reasons and because of our personal preferences instead of pursuing what others want or have. Such instances demonstrate that non-mimetic sources of desire can override mimetic sources. For instance, even though all of your friends live in the city, you might decide to stay in your rural home because it’s better for your budget (a rational reason) and because you prefer quiet, rural spaces (a personal preference).

Rational thinking and personal taste may not be the only other sources of our desires. According to many psychologists, childhood also shapes our desires. In Radical Acceptance, psychologist and meditation expert Tara Brach claims that adults’ desires often come from their unfulfilled childhood needs. For instance, you might desire fame and attention as an adult because your parents didn’t give you enough attention as a child.

By overlooking influences on our desires such as our rational thinking, personal taste, and unmet childhood needs, Girard’s theory and Burgis’s interpretation of it might fail to provide you with strategies for navigating every type of desire.

Why Do We Mimic Others’ Desires?

According to Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, we mimic others’ desires for two main reasons.

Reason 1: Humans Are Hard-Wired to Mimic Others

First, mimetic desire governs our behavior because we’re hard-wired to mimic others. Burgis explains that because humans are social creatures, mimicry is part of almost everything we do. He provides two pieces of evidence supporting this idea that we’re hard-wired to mimic others:

  • Newborn babies engage in mimicry. Studies show that newborns mimic the facial expressions of adults. 
  • We have mirror neurons: nerve cells in our brains that play a role in mimicry. Studies reveal that when we witness someone else interacting with an object, the same part of our brain fires that would fire if we were the ones interacting with that object.

(Shortform note: According to some critics of Girard’s theory, his idea that we’re hard-wired to mimic others isn’t based on scientific evidence. The studies Burgis cites about newborns’ mimicry and our mirror neurons were published after Girard published his theories on mimetic desire. While these studies may retroactively provide some support for Girard’s claim that humans are hard-wired to mimic, critics argue that Girard’s lack of scientific basis for his ideas calls into question how true his theory is.)

Reason 2: We Want to Be Like Someone Else

Second, we mimic others because we crave to be like them. When we admire a person, we believe we can get closer to being like them by adopting their desires. For instance, you might want your friend’s edgy haircut because it reflects her confidence, and you want to be as confident as she is.

(Shortform note: Our desire to be like others may not only shape our choices, as Burgis describes here—our desire to be like others may also shape our skills. When we emulate others, we can also acquire their skills. For instance, one philosopher argues that mimetic desire (specifically the desire to be like others) explains how we learn to speak. Drawing from research on language acquisition, he claims that children mimic the language of their parents and teachers because children admire these adults and want to be like them.)

Whose Desires Do We Tend to Mimic?

Girard used the word “models” to describe people whose desires we mimic. Burgis describes two types of models whose desires we mimic: 

  • Nearby models: These are people we tend to interact with on a regular basis, such as colleagues, family members, mentors, friends, and neighbors. 
  • Faraway models: These are people we don’t interact with regularly. Examples include those in a different social class (such as celebrities), dead people (such as historical figures), and people we follow on social media who don’t necessarily know we exist.
Why Do We Follow Some Models and Not Others?

Some critics raise the following question (which Burgis doesn’t address) about Girard’s ideas on models: Why do we follow some models and not others? Let’s explore this question by examining examples of both nearby and faraway models.

– Nearby models: Consider this scenario involving nearby models: One of your parents is a Democrat and the other is a Republican. You’re a registered Republican. Why did you follow the model of one parent over the other?

– Faraway models: You have billions of faraway models to choose from, considering the number of people on earth as well as dead historical figures. What leads you to fall under the influence of the small proportion of faraway models whom you “follow”? 

These examples suggest that there are other sources of our desires, such as our personal belief systems and our rational thinking, that might dictate which models we follow.
What Is Mimetic Desire? Origins & Examples

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  • Why we want the things that we want
  • How our desires are influenced by what other people want or have
  • Strategies for living a more meaningful life by taking control of what we want

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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