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Mimetic Theory: Why We Copy Others And How It Gets Us Into Trouble

Mimetic Theory helps explain why we're conformists and why our desires and perceptions of what's possible are constrained by what we see others do.

Humans are good at copying each other.

Copying others is an effective way to learn new skills and is probably a big evolutionary advantage.

But our impulse to mimic other people often spills into areas of our lives where it may not be as useful…

Many of our desires are mindlessly copied from others

Many of our desires, for example, aren’t really “our own” and are instead unknowingly copied from others.

The French anthropologist René Girard invented “Mimetic Theory” in part to help explain this phenomenon.

Taylor Pearson summarized this aspect of Mimetic Theory simply:

[H]uman desire is not an autonomous process, but a collective one. We want things because other people want them.

Real-world example: I was once hanging out with two offensively-rich friends in San Francisco. When they first “made it” decades ago, they both bought the exact same rich person car (I think it was a Lamborghini).

Hilariously, both of them said they hated the car once they actually got it. The seats were too low. Repairs were insanely expensive. It was loud as shit.

Both cars ended up collecting dust for years.

Classic mimetic desire gone awry… neither of them were intrinsically sports car people.

We are blind to some opportunities when we mimic others

Not only are our desires largely shaped by what we see other people doing, but so is our perception of what’s possible.

We pursue opportunities that we see other people pursuing and implicitly assume that the careers and markets that exist today are the only places to find opportunities.

But the “opportunity space” of the world is way bigger than we might think.

From an amazing comment on Reddit:

One immediate implication is that the “opportunity space” of the world is far larger than we may at first believe.

If our desires are predicated on our neighbor, if in some sense they are an arbitrary function of the people and ideas that happen to be “close” to us on some dimensions, then not only do we individually underestimate the amount, type, and value of the alternatives that exist, but by induction, EVERYONE ELSE will also do the same.

We as an entire society are this sort of self-enclosing network, nodes variously repulsed and attracted to each other along edges we aren’t aware of via feedback effects we don’t comprehend, our conception of what is possible limited by the narrowed aperture through which we view the opportunity space and by the fact that we DON’T evaluate the world rationally, we evaluate it socially (see: Facebook), and then ex-post rationalize that into “rationalism”.

For a full-blown explanation of Mimetic Theory, I’d encourage you to read the full Reddit comment here.

I’m still wrapping my head around all of the implications.


This post was first sent in a Stew’s Letter, a weekly-ish email for ambitious, curious people. You can join below:

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