An email landed in my Yahoo! inbox on February 17th 2016 at 7:12 PM IST.
The subject read, “S.N. Bose Scholarship Program 2016.”
As soon as I saw it, the pace of my heartbeat increased and I closed my eyes to take a few deep breaths. This is it. This is what I’d been waiting for.
S.N.Bose Scholarship is one of the more prestigious ones you could get selected for in your junior year. It was given out to less than 50 students from all of India back then.
I opened the email gingerly, squinting my eyes in an act of shielding myself from the result.
I am pleased to inform you that you have been provisionally short-listed for the prestigious S.N. Bose Scholars Program 2016.
I read the email, open-mouthed, already thinking about the message I was about to send my parents, friends, and peers informing them of the good news. At that moment, I didn’t care which university or what professor I was about to work under that summer. I didn’t even care about the project or the lab.
The only thing that mattered to me was getting the scholarship.
Because I knew how badly other students in my university (and across the country) wanted it.
I was a victim of intense mimetic desires; it just took me 6 years to identify it.
What are mimetic desires?
Mimetic is Greek for “to imitate.”
Mimetic Desires refer to how we form our desires based on the desires of others around us, aka, our models. That is, we want things because others want them.
The moment you hear what a mimetic desire is, you’re probably thinking, Yeah, of course. That makes sense.
It’s the same reaction you have when you come across an invention that seems so obvious that you’re surprised why nobody else thought of it.
Of course, a pizza box should have the little, plastic pizza saver that prevents the lid from touching the pizza. Isn’t that simple common sense?
Except it wasn’t until 1974.
Similarly, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that a French polymath by the name of René Girard began noticing something strange in classic literature novels. Girard was tasked with teaching French literature in the United States where he was a professor at Duke University, Bryn Mawr College, and Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. While studying the work of Shakespeare, Proust, Cervantes, and Dostoevsky, he began noticing something about the characters in these novels. As Luke Burgis, author of Wanting explains in his book,
“Characters in these novels rely on other characters to show them what is worth wanting. They don’t spontaneously desire anything. Instead, their desires are formed by interacting with other characters who alter their goals and their behavior—most of all, their desires. Girard’s discovery was like the Newtonian revolution in physics, in which the forces governing the movement of objects can only be understood in a relational context. Desire, like gravity, does not reside autonomously in any one thing or person. It lives in the space between them.“
Girard noticed that the better the writer more aptly were they able to capture this fundamental reality of human nature.
We borrow our desires from others.
To be fair, Girard was not the first scholar to make the observation that some of our desires are mimetic. Gabriel Tarde, a French sociologist, published a book in 1890 titled The Laws of Imitation. Thomas Hobbes, considered one of the founding fathers of modern political philosophy, wrote in his book Leviathon, “If any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies.”
While Girard was not the first scholar, he certainly is the most outspoken of them all who doesn’t just proclaim that all desires are mimetic, but also that it is mimetic desires that give birth to conflict, violence, myth, and religion.
Let’s take a look at how Girard builds the arc from innocent imitation to a looming apocalypse.
Mimetic Theory & the Scapegoat Mechanism
“It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.” – Alexis de Tocqueville
Let’s say you and I belong to the same Tennis club in college. You joined a few months ago; and hearing you share how much fun you’ve been having there, I too decided to join a month ago. In the beginning, I joined because I liked playing Tennis and I wanted to compete and win in the inter-college tournament happening next year.
But the coach just informs us that only one of us can be selected to participate in the tournament. We turn to look at each other, as the seeds of mimetic rivalry slowly get planted in both of our heads.
I start showing up to practice just a little earlier than you, hoping that will give me an edge. You begin playing on the weekends unbeknownst to me. I spend more time in the gym. You re-watch your matches to spot mistakes. I sleep less. You sleep less. I avoid you. You avoid me.
It’s no more about winning the inter-college tournament or even getting to participate in it. It’s about me besting you, and you besting me.
In Girard’s words, mimesis has changed our goal from acquiring the object (i.e. winning the tournament) to competing with our model (i.e. I’m your model, and you’re mine), because we both desire a scarce good (i.e. getting selected to participate).
As Jonathan Bi describes in this article,
“The goal of object-competition, to acquire the object, is clear and success is more or less secure. The goal of mimetic rivalries, to best the rival, is ambiguous and success is unstable. There is no clear criteria for superiority over the rival and even if we are confident in our temporary victory, lasting dominance over a dynamic and adapting rival is unstable. This ambiguity and insecurity cause much more tension and suffering than object-competition does.“
It’s not far-fetched to imagine in the above example how the innocent rivalry that sparked between us continues to expand, penetrating all parts of our existence.
Let’s assume that the coach selected you, in the end, to participate in the tournament.
I’m livid hearing this news. You feel victorious, but for all the wrong reasons.
I avoid you completely; feeling more devastated than I would’ve been if I had lost in the actual tournament. And, I also avoid playing Tennis now. A sport that I genuinely enjoyed playing for leisure is now something I look down upon. If someone asks me why I stopped playing, I say with contempt, “It was such a waste of time, honestly. I realized I’d rather spend time reading a book or catching up with a friend.”
Now imagine if this type of mimetic rivalry exists between 50 pairs of students who all play at the Tennis club in college.
Sooner or later, this would devolve into a chaotic bubble that needs diffusion.
That’s where scapegoating happens: an innocent and arbitrary scapegoat is often blamed and expelled in an act of collective murder.
Let’s come back to our example again.
As the chaotic bubble keeps expanding, someone who didn’t get picked by the coach for a tournament casually mentions in a group chat, “I really don’t like this coach. Do you think we can get a new one?”
At first, I see the message and laugh it off, thinking the coach had nothing to do with what happened.
But then, I see a few messages trickling in. “Yeah, me neither. He’s too rigid with his rules.” “One time, I saw him drinking alcohol at the court.” “Did you know he had no formal training in Tennis?”
Now I begin thinking, “Okay, I guess they’re right. He selected her over me even though I was clearly better. Why would he do that if he was a professional?” So, I chime in too. “I’m in guys. Let’s get him out!”
Soon after, all of us sign a petition to get him fired from the university. As we unite and come together for a cause, you and I cross paths again, this time wanting to reconcile. I say, “It was his fault all along, pitting us against each other instead of giving everyone a fair chance.” You say, “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry it caused a rift between us.”
And we catch up over coffee the next day, laughing like good old friends who’ve known each other for 10 years.
Girard began noticing this scapegoating mechanism happening over and over again in pre-modern societies. Some examples he quotes are (a) the story of Apollonius encouraging the city of Ephesus to kill a blind beggar to restore peace, (b) the story of Oedipus Rex going into exile thinking he caused the plague in Thebes, (c) and even the Nazis’ persecuting the Jews for German decline and causing the Holocaust.
In all the examples, there was no rationality behind the scapegoat mechanism. The victim neither had the power to cause nor end the chaos. It’s all psychological projection by the crowd.
Although Girard acknowledges that it’s wrong, he also notes that it’s the only thing that kept our early ancestors alive.
There’s a lot more to the scapegoating mechanism that I plan on covering in my upcoming articles.
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The Science Behind Imitation
We learn by imitation.
As our neural pathways are laid out extensively in our formative years, we learn to eat, talk, and walk by imitating those around us.
And interestingly, imitation is not something we learn with time. We imitate from the moment we’re born.
Dr. Andrew Meltzoff and Dr. Keith Moore published a paper in 1977 that surprised the scientific community (and possibly even themselves). Until 1977, the widely held view was that infants learn to imitate facial actions when they reach 8 to 12 months of age, based on the work of Dr. Jean Piaget. But Meltzoff and Moore showed that babies as young as 12 days imitated tongue protrusion, mouth opening, and lip protrusion. Just 5 years later, they replicated these findings for even younger babies, the youngest of which was only 42 minutes old!
Meltzoff and Moore proposed that infant imitation is based on a process called “Active Intermodal Mapping” (AIM).
AIM hypothesizes that imitation is essentially a “matching-to-target” process. The infant sees her mom sticking out her tongue and her goal is clear: match the mom. To do so, she needs to receive “proprioceptive” feedback — meaning stimuli that are produced and perceived within the same organism. Meltzoff and Moore claim that she’s able to do this because the production and perception of human movements are registered within a common “supramodal” region in the brain. So, although the infant cannot see her own face, she can still perceive what she’s doing.
This was a bold claim made in the early 1980s, but it was validated 15 years later, in 1996 by a team of researchers in Italy working with an entirely different type of subject: macaque monkeys.
Dr. Giacomo Rizzolati and the team were trying to understand how monkeys reacted to different objects and actions. To do so, they connected electrodes to the monkeys’ premotor cortex to record feedback. Almost by serendipity, they noticed that when they picked up an object — say, a peanut — the monkeys’ motor neurons would begin to fire as if the monkey held the peanut in its hand. The same repeated when the researchers would pop a peanut in their mouth: the same neurons that fired when the monkey popped the peanut in its mouth would fire again.
They published their findings in a 1996 paper and called these neurons the mirror neurons.
Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, an Indian-American neuroscientist, says,
“The discovery of mirror neurons… is the single most important unreported story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: They will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”
And so they do. Mirror neurons do give some scientific underpinning for the AIM hypothesis, imitation, and mimetic desires.
However, it falls short of explaining the vast complexity of human imitation as a whole. Mainly because the mirror neuron “machinery” we find in humans is also found in monkeys (in fact, found first in monkeys). Yet, what we humans are capable of achieving by imitation — such as believing in myth, forming cultures, and building religion — is far more expansive than what the monkeys could imagine.
So clearly there’s something more that gives rise to our mimetic desires beyond just mirror neurons. While we don’t have the answers yet, there’s been increasing interest in imitation research over the past few decades thanks to Girard’s work.
Maslow’s Hierarchy & Mimetic Desires
“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 others desire because we imitate their desires.” — Rene Girard
Abraham Maslow posited all the way back in 1941 with his groundbreaking paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, that in order for each of us to reach our full potential, there are a variety of developmental needs that need to be met. This begins with physiological ones such as the need for food and water and eventually leads up to safety needs, social needs, self-esteem needs, and finally, self-actualization needs on top.
The pyramid above makes it seem like the physiological and safety needs make up the foundational and largest set of needs for a person. Except, it’s simply not true.
If you’re reading this article, I’ll assume that you spend the least of your time worrying about the food you eat and the house you live in. While important, they’re not what you spend your days thinking about.
Rather, you spend most of your time, and life, in the layers above the first two levels. Although they’re called “needs” in Maslow’s Hierarchy, they’re truly your “desires.” As quoted in an article,
“There are only so many calories to eat in a day, only so many sexual experiences, only so many different degrees of temperature that are comfortable, only so many styles of roof that can go over a person’s head. When it comes to true needs, we don’t need much. Our first brain is all we need to handle them. All of the “needs” above the first two levels—belonging and love, self-esteem, and the fulfillment of creative activities, or self-fulfillment—belong to the world of desire. There are a finite number of things a person needs. But there are an infinite number of things to desire.“
And because the world of possibilities opens up when you surpass your basic needs, you begin looking to other people to show you what is worth desiring.
There’s another lesser-known fact about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Maslow added another layer on top of self-actualization in the twilight years of his life.
This was the layer of self-transcendence: The ability of someone to transcend themselves and their ego to live in a different realm in service of others, and in pursuit of ultimate verities such as goodness, beauty, justice, and peace.
Sadly, this never entered the mainstream discourse. Personally, I think this is a shame since the current 5-layer pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy signals that the peak of someone’s life is to reach self-actualization, centered all around the individual. This begets a capitalistic world filled with individuals chasing money, prestige, and status, playing a losing game fueled by mimetic desires.
Why should you care about Mimetic Theory?
To quote Luke Burgis from Wanting again,
Mimetic desire is like gravity—it just is. Gravity is always at work. It causes some people to live in constant pain when they don’t develop the muscles in their core and around their spine to be able to stand up straight and face the world, to resist the downward pull. Others experience that same gravity and find ways to go to the moon. Mimetic desire is like that. If we’re not aware of it, it will take us places we don’t want to go. But if we develop the right social and emotional muscles in response to it, mimetic desire becomes a a way to effect positive change.
Am I immune to mimetic desires because I’m aware of them now? No.
But, I’m certainly more aware of avoiding paths that will lead me to mimetic rivalry.
Now I know that I was in mimetic rivalry back in 2016 with the others who applied for the coveted S.N.Bose Scholarship. I experienced a brief moment of high when I saw that email. But now, six years later, I’ve completely diverged away from the path of a chemical engineer, even though back then I took pride in securing the top rank in my department. I diverged because I was never passionate about it. I’m just grateful that I had the good senses to recognize this early on in my career.
And my hope is for you to do the same.
The Case Against Girard
Although you learned a lot about René Girard and his revolutionary theory in this article, I want to ensure you receive an unbiased view of his work.
If you’d like to learn about the most vocal and justified criticisms against Girard’s work, please read this article I published.
It’s easy to never recognize that you’re in a bubble when you’re actually in it.
Taking a step out to inspect it will leave you better off in the end.