Don’t Fall Victim to Mimetic Desire

I have a friend who is really into cars.

He talks about different models and how some guy owns this, another guy owns that, and a third guy owns something else. They’re all nice cars (I presume). And the people are all people he looks up to (again, I presume).

He gets really animated whenever he’s talking to someone else who knows about cars or knows the people he’s talking about.

To be honest, I can’t really describe it in concrete terms because I’m not into cars. I recognize the names of the manufacturers but that’s about it.

You probably know someone similar, but you can replace cars with another topic. It could be something material, like a car, or it could be something performative, like how quickly they can run a marathon (or how often they’ve run them).

The key feature is that they’re usually around other people who are really into it too.

That’s when it’s important to recognize an important theory of human behavior – the mimetic theory of desire.

Table of Contents
  1. What is the Mimetic Theory of Desire?
  2. An Example of Mimetic Desire
  3. Why is Mimetic Desire Bad?
  4. How Do You Overcome Mimetic Desire?

What is the Mimetic Theory of Desire?

The mimetic theory of desire, shortened to mimetic desire, is the idea that what you desire in life is a function of your desire to imitate those around you, especially those you hold in higher esteem.

The concept was developed by a René Girard, 20th-century French philosopher, and he believed that we borrow our desires from the people around us.

It’s a theory and one that cannot be proven, but we see evidence of this everywhere. We value the things we see and talk about often, which is fueled in part by more confirmation bias, and it drives our behavior.

An Example of Mimetic Desire

When I was in my twenties, my group of friends went out to bars quite often. We’d go after work for happy hour. We’d go out later into Baltimore on Fridays and Saturdays. Sometimes we got together for lunch or brunch on weekends.

There’s always a feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out) if you didn’t go and it wasn’t a ton of spending, but it added up. $40 for drinks, $80 for brunch, etc.

How often would I have gone out if not for friends? Far less. (I’m not going to a bar by myself)

Because my friends were going, I went too. I wanted to go. And so I went.

Mimetic desire can be bad because it can push you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t do.

Why is Mimetic Desire Bad?

OK, so how bad is mimetic desire?

It depends on your perspective and your goals. Going out to bars cost money so I was saving less. But it wasn’t horrible, especially since I was tracking my spending and still saving towards my goals. But I was certainly spending more than I would otherwise.

I was also consuming more calories, in both alcohol and the terrible-for-us food we were eating during those late nights. It tasted fantastic (I mean 2 AM pizza is never bad, right?), but not great for our bodies.

But mimetic desire isn’t always bad – what if my friends were runners or lifters? What if instead of going out to bars, we went out on runs? Or went to life at the gym? From a fitness perspective, that type of mimetic desire is a positive.

It’s only bad when your underlying desires are affected in a way that runs counter to your goals. Financially, this might be a desire for more expensive material possessions or services. A car is a great example because it has a sticker price but also a total cost of ownership that many people don’t consider. It’s also very visible to you and your friends.

In a nearby brand new neighborhood (less than five years old), there are single family homes priced in the seven figures. It feels like every other home has a Tesla Model 3 or Model X parked in the garage.

I’ve ridden in one – they are fantastic vehicles. They have great features and ride smooth. The autopilot is a little scary but dog mode is convenient for pet lovers. But everyone who owns one is paying a hefty premium. There are other cars out there with similar features that cost less.

How many people in that neighborhood bought a Tesla because they truly wanted one and how many bought one because they saw their neighbor owned one? Who wants to be the house without an electric car?

If that seems extreme, and it kind of is, here’s another example – what kind of phone do you own? Is it an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy or a Google Pixel? Apple sold 235 million iPhones in 2023.

Did you compare all the features, the cost, etc. – or did you just get an iPhone without thinking much about it?

I know I did!

Related: The Psychology of Rituals: Why We Go Crazy for Pumpkin Spice Lattes

How Do You Overcome Mimetic Desire?

It’s impossible to completely overcome it because it’s human nature. It’s also not necessarily a bad thing, as we saw in the case of fitness.

An important first step is recognizing it in the first place. When you desire something, have you logically thought it through or was it unknowingly influenced by other people?

How do you know? First, try to identify if there is a model that you’re trying to imitate.

I’ll share a reverse example – we’ve been looking at minivans. We have four kids, they’re getting bigger, and we rented a Honda Odyssey on a recent trip and loved it. In mentioning it to some friends, there was a sense that getting a minivan was a bad thing. It was a negative signal (maybe it’s the Tesla mafia???).

None of those friends had any reason to get one so it wasn’t like they were really put to any decisions but I found it funny that there was a negative trope about minivans. (for the record, we’re still going to get a minivan at some point, so it’s a matter of when and not if)

I have no model when it comes to cars. I did recognize that my friends did have a model and that model wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan!

Once you recognize there’s a model, and this could be people you know or someone follow on social media, realize that you’re being influenced by that model and put boundaries around it. Just as it is great to be influenced positively (like in fitness), too much of a good thing can be bad too (also, fitness).

Remember that human beings often decide based on emotion and then look to confirm that decision with logic and reasoning (and data). Try to take the emotion out of as many decisions as possible and lean on quantitative factors to make your decisions.

Finally, if all else fails, make sure you pick the right models to imitate!

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools, everything I use) is Empower Personal Dashboard, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Stephan Foley
4 months ago

Hey Jim. Fortunately, I’m an introvert. When I was younger, I fell prey to that. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found that I don’t care about other people’s opinions. I only want things that I need, not what other people are doing. Regarding your interest in a minivan, I think as a man you might view things as tools to achieve your goals. A cool minivan and a growing family is a great tool for moving this large mass of humanity about town. I think people see it as a giving up on life. You are no longer James Bond… Read more »

Marsha
4 months ago

I loved the article about mimetic desire. Although I had to laugh about the concept of today’s minivans. I’ve driven the Honda Odyssey and the VW Atlas.
My definition of mini brings to mind a Miata.
Yes, I come from a car family-
And I have studied psychology.
😁

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