Mimetic Desire: Do You Really Want What You Want or Do You Want It Because Other People Want It, Too?

Photo: HBO
To desire is human. But do we really want what we want... or do we want something because other people want it, too? The second season of HBO’s dramedy The White Lotus explores this idea through the mimetic theory of desire, a concept that originated from French thinker René Girard (and has gained fresh relevance after its mention on the captivating TV series).

In the sixth episode of the series, Ethan (Will Sharpe) briefly references mimetic desire to explain why his friend Cameron (Theo James) pursued every girl Ethan ever liked. “You have a bad case of something called mimetic desire,” Ethan says. “If someone with higher status than you wants something, it means it’s more likely you’ll want it, too.” This suggests that Cameron wants something not because he thinks it’s valuable but because others have deemed it as such.

Experts In This Article
  • Barbara Burt, PsyD, Barbara Burt, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and coach. She is also the program chair at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix.
  • Karen Sullivan, PhD, ABPP, clinical neuropsychologist and creator of the I CARE FOR YOUR BRAIN program

As the plot progresses and tensions escalate between Ethan and Cameron, it becomes evident of just how influential mimetic desire can be and the ways in which it takes shape.

What is mimetic desire?

In Girard’s mimetic theory of desire, he posits that desire is fundamentally social. We want what other people want, and moreover that our aspirations are model-oriented, meaning that we desire objects as not an end to itself but as a means to an end, which is to emulate the people we admire or respect.

How does mimetic desire affect your mind?

Girard believed that mimetic desire could be a catalyst for social learning, much in the same way that children look to their caregivers to model behavior. He says, however, that it could also lead to “mimetic rivalry,” which typically occurs when there’s competition over the object of desire or if the object is in limited supply—which is what transpires in The White Lotus, according to neuropsychologist Karen Sullivan, PhD, ABBP, referring to it as the “Cameron Effect.”

“Cameron doesn’t just want Harper, he wants her because it puts him at a social advantage, and because she is already taken, this is where mimetic desire backfires and leads to mimetic rivalry.” —Karen Sullivan, PhD, ABBP, neuropsychologist

“Cameron doesn’t just want Harper, he wants her because it puts him at a social advantage, and because she is already taken, this is where mimetic desire backfires and leads to mimetic rivalry,” she says. She also mentions that mimetic rivalry, separates individuals into two groups—the haves (the people who have the object) and the have-nots (the people who can’t have the object)—“this is the essence of societal violence.”

As much as we like to think we are rational individuals, we can’t help it if we want something that someone else has. This, for example, is common among adolescents or people who are trying to figure out who they are, what they want to be, and how they want to be in the world, according to psychologist Barbara Burt, PsyD, program chair at the College Of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Phoenix. Typically, these individuals look to others for guidance as they develop their identity.

“If you’re operating out of mimetic desire, then you’re looking at what I would call the external locus of control,” says Dr. Burt, as opposed to the internal locus of control. “What the internal locus of control says is, ‘Okay, it’s up to me and what I do versus what other people have or what they do.’” It’s when desires are exclusively motivated by what others have when things can become problematic—and, according to Dr. Burt, “There’s enough evidence out there that if we just do something for an external reason, we’ll ultimately be dissatisfied.”

Objects, too, can seemingly hold a tangible promise of closing the gap between a person and the individual they wish to emulate. Mimetic desire commonly serves as a way to sell products, which is valuable not only in terms of what it does, but it is often a “symbol” of who you are.

In an article written by Bradley Hoos in Forbes, he posits that mimetic desire is often at the crux of effective influencing marketing. “Marketing is the cultivation of desire at scale,” he writes. “If your audience’s role models begin advocating for a product, that audience becomes more inclined to purchase it.”

Dr. Burt thinks that this isn’t just limited to influence marketing, but marketing in general: “In a lot of ways, advertising is the application of mimetic desire.” Dr. Sullivan echoes this sentiment, adding that it is often hard for people to resist its lure and that it can even be “insatiable” because it is hardwired in our biology to have a sense of belonging. “Our biology is telling us, ‘Belong to the group you need’ or, ‘You’re safer in the group’—that’s the message it gives to our brain,” she says, and in this way Cameron’s shameless pursuit of Harper is almost “an animalistic, hardwired thing.”

What’s more, mimetic desire can also play out in ways that go beyond physical items. It can extend to ideas, beliefs, and the practices we associate ourselves with. And when you think about it in the realm of mimetic desire, you might wonder why we do the things we do. Again, the question arises: Is it because we ourselves enjoy it or because of what the doing says about us?

How do you avoid mimetic desire?

It seems mimetic desire is inherent to human behavior, and whether we know it or not, it can influence us in many ways that seem to fall out of our control. While Dr. Sullivan believes that we have free will as humans, it’s “heavily censored” by mimetic desire, as though it were an inescapable aspect of ourselves.

However, Dr. Sullivan says that there is power in knowing, and it can be helpful to acknowledge that mimetic desire, as pervasive as it is, is constantly at play within and around us. “When you bring it to awareness, you can override the unconscious push to do something that’s not in your best interest,” she says.

Dr. Burt says that it can also be helpful to turn inward and revisit what your true personal desires are. She poses some questions you might want to ask yourself, like “Would you still want what you want if no one else wanted it?” and on a deeper level, “Does this thing help you become who you want to become?”

While it will certainly take practice to separate our desires from what others want, especially because humans exist in a community and not in a vacuum, there’s merit in using your own internal senses as you make decisions and consider what external forces may be influencing you at any given time.

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