One of the aspects of social life is to see in the other things that we do not have and which arouse a certain envy in us. Whether it’s wealth, beauty, property, or the way of being, there are things that seem to make other people happy, so it makes sense to want that for us too.
With the great influence of mass media, especially social networks in recent years, a social phenomenon such as mimetic desire has gained momentum. People crave what they see in the media, what makes celebrities look like successful people.
In this article we are going to talk about this curious concept which, although it must have existed throughout history, it was only relatively recently that it was baptized mimetic desire. Let’s dig a little deeper into this.
What is mimetic desire?
Defining mimetic desire is not easy, even if no one escapes its enchantment. We can say that it is a social desire based, at bottom, on the desire for the same thing as others, fruit of envy and the idea that if there is something that seems to make others happy, why not make us happy? It is inevitable to desire the things that other people have.
This desire must have been present throughout human history, however consumer societies have intensified exponentially. Capitalism, supported by the media, has created unnecessary needs on the part of people who, bombarded with all kinds of advertisements and advertisements in movies, series and, more recently, on social media, see the products and services. that they would like to have. We don’t need it, but the media make sure we think otherwise.
Mimetic desire already begins to manifest in childhood, which can be seen in babies. We think of one of them, surrounded by many toys but ignores them because he is too busy jumping with his pacifier. Suddenly his older brother arrives and wants to play with a toy car that was there. The baby, seeing his little brother, starts to get angry because now he wants to play with this car which he hadn’t paid any attention to until a few seconds ago.
The origin of the concept
Although mimetic desire has existed throughout human history, it was the philosopher René Girard who coined the term in the 1970s. Examples that Girard himself analyzed were Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Rouge et noir by Stendhal, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust and some works by Dostoyevsky.
The protagonist of many works he longed to be what other great people had been, feeling great unease at not having succeeded. These were stories that reflected how inside the characters aroused a desire that was not genuine but to be like their idol. This recurring figure in universal literature was what prompted René Girard to raise the idea of mimetic desire, very applicable to people of flesh and blood and articulated not only in the world of advertising and mass media, but also in sexual desire, commercial or aesthetic.
Examples of mimetic desire
Social networks feed mimetic desire. They make us see things every day, objects and services that we don’t need but that just seeing them in mainstream media piques our interest. It is this desire that makes us all end up imitating each other, becoming a homogeneous society. We feel that if we do not have the same thing as the others we are not worth, that we do not fit in, then we can understand that mimetic desire can be a source of discomfort.
With or without social networks, this mimetic desire contributes to the formation of fashions. For example, anyone who spent their childhood in the 2000s will recall that at this time, colorful silicone bracelets with engraved phrases became all the rage. While many believed these bracelets were simple, ugly, and cheesy, every boy and girl who didn’t own one was considered a rare beast. Because of this, many fell under social pressure and spent their weekly wages comparing them.
Another more recent example is the case of spinners, a fad that has hit even adults. Today they are still sold, but 5 or 6 years ago when everyone was crazy about these toys today we do not know what they were used for. Some said that it was used to relax, others that it helped the children to concentrate. The only thing that seemed useful was to take the rooms away from people on the pretext that anyone who didn’t have them would lose them.
These are just two of the many examples that we could use to highlight the effect of this socio-psychological phenomenon. Mimetic desire articulates all modes, explains our most basic motivations, defines commercial rivalry and, unfortunately, is also at the origin of the emergence and chronicity of certain psychological disorders, such as eating disorders.
In fact, René Girard himself speaks of the relationship between ADD and mimetic desire in his book “Anorexia and mimetic desire” (2009). In this article he explains how the canon of beauty has exercised true tyranny, making many women want an extremely slim body, similar to that of models and other celebrities.
It also happens to men who, eager to have the bodies of actors, influencers and public figures like Jason Momoa or Chris Evans end up developing an image disorder like vigor. No wonder, then, augmented by social networks, that it seems that having a well sculpted body is synonymous with unlimited happiness, wealth and sex appeal.
Mimetic desire, survival and psychological distress
We think that this desire to have what others have would have an evolutionary explanation involved in survival. This question was addressed by Luker Burgis in his book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. Throughout evolution, we humans have imitated the behaviors of others, believing that if it helped them survive, it should work for us too.
We are thinking of prehistoric humans. If a group of our ancestors developed a new technique of hunting or cultivation and it worked for them in the fight against hunger, it is logical to think that others wanted to emulate them. This would lead to the extension of advances from one human group to others, advancing humanity together.
Today, mimetic desire no longer seems to fulfill this role. Far from serving us to acquire something beneficial that others do, this desire to want to have what others have can plunge us into an intense rivalry.. It can cause us an unhealthy urge, a desire to have what our idols have, and even a desire to harm those who have more than us. While we try to be more like those who have things that we think are positive, if we cannot achieve them, we can try to lose those who have them.
And if they aren’t objects, you end up wanting sculpted bodies of athletes or the lives of famous people. We want what other people have, we want to be like them even in the way we dress and are. This is also one of the reasons why some meaningless challenges (for example, eating dish soap) go viral. Mimetic desire drives all kinds of large-scale social behavior, no matter how silly it may sound.
It is for this reason that mimetic desire can end great suffering, especially on the psychological level. Wanting to imitate others without realizing that we cannot be equal and that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, which will never become exactly like the others, causes discomfort because all efforts are made and no results are obtained .
It is only when we realize that no one is the same, that everyone is as they are and will have their own successes and failures, that we feel a little more free to allow ourselves to be ourselves. The obsession with being like others will only bring us discomfort and dissatisfaction. Happiness is not in others, it is in oneself, which has all or more of what is necessary to achieve it.
- Paisley Livingston (1994) What is mimetic desire ?, Philosophical Psychology, 7: 3, 291-305, DOI: 10.1080 / 09515089408573125
- Girard, René (2009). Anorexia and mimetic desire Barcelona: Marbot Ediciones
- Maël Lebreton, Shadia Kawa, Baudouin Forgeot d’Arc, Jean Daunizeau, Mathias Pessiglione (2012) Your Goal Is Mine: Unraveling mimetic desires in the human brain. Journal of Neuroscience May 23, 2012, 32 (21) 7146-7157; DOI: 10.1523 / JNEUROSCI.4821-11.2012