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Why Everyone Wants the Same Things

This one idea explains bubbles in the stock market, cancel culture and why everyone binged 'Tiger King' at the same time.

I recently read an email from an NPR employee in which the signature was the most intriguing part. After his name and pronouns (he/him) was the question: “Why are there pronouns in my signature?” I clicked the link

It led me to a six-page Google document called the NPR Pronoun Guide. “We act to create an inclusive environment in which individuals of all identities feel valued,” it stated. This was followed by a lengthy glossary of terms. I read it all, but the fundamental question in his signature was left unanswered: Why are there pronouns there? 

Only a few years ago, it would have seemed bizarre to have your pronouns in your emails. I’ve asked people who include their pronouns in emails (and elsewhere) why they do so. They offer versions of the same answer: That it’s a long overdue recognition of the complexities of gender, or that they are making a small gesture that improves the world. 

I believe this new phenomenon is an illustration of a deeper, hidden social force. That is the relentless, often unconscious, need for humans to reassure themselves they are in sync with their group. Displaying pronouns signals: I am part of the tribe and I know the rules.

We live in destabilizing times. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it “liquid modernity”—the unnerving feeling of “fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change.” We are unsure of what is desirable or undesirable, acceptable or not acceptable, respectful or bigoted. Increasingly, if we don’t understand these liquid rules—you may have noticed that the etiquette is constantly changing—we might find ourselves singled out and scapegoated, which is humanity’s time-tested mechanism to achieve social cohesion through exclusion. 

Being cast out is one of humanity’s most devastating punishments. Even those of us who live in relative security fear the possibility of this happening. So I’d like to explain an idea that I hope will help you make more sense of what’s happening in our world—the specific mechanism that is the cause of much of our social dysfunction.

We are social creatures. Yet even acknowledging that there are social forces at play within us when it comes to our take on any number of social and political issues has become taboo. Taboos always protect something fragile—in this case, the false idea that our desires, indeed our very identity, is the product of our autonomous, “authentic,” independent Self. 

There is a hardwired imitative instinct in humans that we share with most primates: If they lose their tribe, they’re dead. We, too, are naturally social and tribal, which means there are good reasons for wanting what other people want. It is what allows us to live together in groups and to work together toward common goals.

Although life seems to be growing more atomized, we are powerfully shaped by the desires of the people around us. The market for avocado toast and coconut water is still going strong, and the social contagion on both the political left and right—like the clustering of different perspectives on the Covid vaccine, and the convergence of nearly all political discourse around just three or four hot-button issues—seems to be accelerating.

I have been caught in many of these riptides myself. Everyone has. 

I only came to understand why about a decade ago when I was introduced to the work of the social theorist René Girard, a brilliant Frenchman who came to the U.S. in the 1940s and stayed for the rest of his life, teaching at many universities, and finally becoming a professor at Stanford. He died at age 91 in 2015. But his work, at the intersection of history, philosophy, anthropology, religion, and sociology, spread far beyond the academy. When I discovered him, I was trying to figure out why I felt pulled in so many different directions and why I often went through cycles of intense passion followed by great disillusionment, whether in romance or work.

Girard shed light on what was going on. He had a name for this phenomenon, which he believed was at the root of nearly all human behavior: mimetic desire

Human beings are expert imitators (mimetic comes from a Greek word meaning “to imitate”). Science has shown that we are the most imitative creatures on the planet, and we imitate in a far more complex, symbolic way than any known animal. While we are good at imitating the speech and fashions of others, Girard’s discovery was that humans imitate the very desires of other people.

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote. We have instinctual responses to help us choose the objects that meet our most basic needs—when we’re hungry, we seek food; when we’re cold, we want warmth. But there is an entire universe of desires for which we have no instinctual basis for choosing one object or another. For these objects of desire, Girard saw that the most important factor in determining what we want are the desires of other people, or what he calls our “models of desire.”

These models can be positive. Someone who witnesses a person on a city street act with compassion to a stranger could suddenly find themselves inflamed with a desire to do the same. But Girard realized that oftentimes our models of desire are the people close to us, and this can cause friction. 

The accomplishments of former classmates can become disappointing measuring sticks for ourselves. This inherent propensity to adopt others’ desires as our own (usually without realizing it) has a further complication: It leads us to view others as rivals. “Rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations,” Girard wrote, seeing that imitation paved the way for non-stop comparison and attempts to differentiate ourselves from others.

Girard’s insight was that we fight not because we’re different. We fight because, through mimetic desire, we want the same things. If you watch twenty toddlers run into a room filled with toys, it will not be long before they are fighting over just a few of them. As adults, we do not outgrow this behavior; we merely become more sophisticated at it.

Reading Girard for the first time opened my eyes to just how mimetic human behavior is. It helps explain bubbles in the stock market, the political clustering of ideas, or even the fact that it felt like everyone I knew was watching “Tiger King” during the same week of the pandemic. Perhaps you noticed it over Thanksgiving when five family members suggested binging “The Crown.”

At first, I wondered if Girard was saying humans lack free will, that he was asserting we are simply apes, aping the behavior of those around us. Not at all. Girard was exhorting us to understand the nature of our desire and to take responsibility for it. 

Still, there’s a joke in Girard circles that becoming a “Girardian” is itself mimetic, and that maybe the people who are quickest to see the truth of mimesis are those who are more prone to it themselves. Mimetic theory is now very popular among entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley. For one thing, mimesis explains the breathtaking speed at which their creations take over the world. 

I think their embrace of Girard is also partly due to some entrepreneurs thinking of themselves as standing outside of mimetic behavior, as being the Ayn Randian prime mover or creator of others’ desires. It helps that Girard taught at Stanford where some influential people, including PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, became fascinated by his ideas. Fellow Stanford Professor, Michel Serres called Girard “the new Darwin of the human sciences.”

It’s no surprise that Girard is having a moment: The popularity of NFT’s and meme stocks; the rise of influencers (in one poll more than 80 percent of young people say they’d like to become one); and the knee-jerk imitation and piling on of cancel culture are all explained by his thinking.

Girard believed that mimetic desire is neither good nor bad. It is to human psychology what gravity is to physics: It’s a force that simply is. We have to learn to live with it. It’s part of what it means to be human. And we should learn to do so in a positive way, or it will take us places we don’t want to go.

Social media has enabled mimesis on a global scale—something that Peter Thiel himself realized about a young start-up named Facebook. Thiel became an early investor as a bet on the power of mimesis. In Girard’s New York Times obituary Thiel says, “Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic. Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.”

At the beginning, social media held the promise of bringing humanity together—we quickly learned how naïve that was. There is no better illustration of the dark side of Girard’s thesis than today’s clamoring on-line mobs demanding that we denounce, cancel, or condemn those who have been singled out as deviant and forced to bear a punishment disproportionate to their offense, if there even was a real offense at all. 

This is a process which Girard called the scapegoat mechanism—a perennial feature of humanity. People often engage in this mobbing as a subconscious way to stop the spread of mimesis. That is, by unifying around a common enemy, a group protects itself from the intrusion of dangerous ideas or behavior that might threaten its social cohesion.

We should be aware of how easily we can be tempted to join in such denunciation. People would rather be wrong than alone. It’s dangerous to stand apart from the crowd, possibly to become the victim of a collective attack.

While it may not be possible to transcend mimesis, it is possible to recognize when we are at risk of losing our self-possession to the frenzied desires of others. In a time like ours, when we are bombarded by those skillful at hijacking our mimetic system, we can all benefit by better understanding the powerful force of mimetic desire at work in our lives.

I believe we need not be slaves to small-minded and small-spirited mimesis. We are capable of transcending its destructive outcomes. The brave men and women of every age who have stood alone—who did the right thing in the face of near-unanimous opposition—were never alone in spirit.

Indeed, there is hardly anything more wonderfully, positively mimetic than a courageous person who inspires others to be courageous, too. 

If you’re interested in Rene Girard and the idea of mimetic desire, here are some suggestions from Luke Burgis for further reading and listening:

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