Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

tags: psychology

This book explains “The Romantic Lie,” which is a theory proposed by Rene Girard. It says that we’re fooling ourselves when we think we want something just because we do – we actually only want things because we’ve been programmed by other’s to want them.

This is what’s known as “mimetic desire,” or “desire driven by memes.”

Understand that “meme” doesn’t mean some viral cat picture. More general, it’s a term coined by Richard Dawkins in 1975 to refer to a piece of information that spreads cultural, through populations. “Meme” is analogous to “gene,” and “mimetic” is analogous to “genetic.”

Just like physical things spread through the generations genetically, information and culture spread through populations mimetically. And this is what makes us want things. We see other people have them, and we hold those people us as “models” and seek to emulate them.

The book is an elucidation of a pretty obvious concept, but it’s fun to deconstruct it. It does get a little repetitive – it feels like it was stretched out a bit.

Throughout, there are sidebars of “tactics” to help you counter mimetic desire. For example:

Throughout, the author talks about “thick desires” and “thin desires.” Thick desires are things that we feel a deep, lifelong need for, and for which we can articulate our reasons. Thin desires are the opposite of that.

What I found lacking in the book – the hidden subtext that the author never goes anywhere near – is the role of spirituality and faith. The book is fundamentally about the things we long for that will make us happy, and it’s tough to talk about that without even approaching some discussion of spiritual fulfillment.

This is doubly odd when you read about the author on the bookflap. He studied theology at a pontifical university in Rome, and he’s a professor at the Catholic University of America. It’s a safe assumption that he’s Catholic, and has some background in faith, which makes me wonder why it never came up.

In the end, I think the book is about self-awareness. It’s okay to want to emulate other people, so long as you’re aware of that. Too often, we pretend that our desires are noble or deep-seated, when really we’re just trying to keep up with the Jones.

Admitting that is half the battle, it seems.

Book Info