Why We Want What Other People Have

Making choices based on the desires of others is a part of human nature. But there are ways to counteract the force.

Illustration credit: Liana Finck

Nearly everyone (unconsciously) assumes there’s a straight line between them and the things they want.

I wake up one day and “suddenly” decide that I want to run a marathon. (Amazingly, all of my friends had a similar realization when they hit their midthirties, too.)

I get the brilliant idea that starting a podcast is objectively the best way to talk about big ideas, and I arrive at this decision based on all the “data.” (Right around the time that everyone else seems to be arriving at the same conclusion.)

I decide to get a dog during the pandemic because, well, I’ve been wanting a dog for a long time, and now seems like as good a time as ever. (Nevermind that I’m the only one in my friend group who hasn’t adopted one yet, and they share pictures of their puppies on Instagram on a daily basis.)

In each of these cases, I’ve convinced myself that my desire is independent and autonomous. I want to pursue something because it “just makes sense,” or it’s the right thing to do, or it’s what I authentically desire—my personal pathway to fulfillment.

(This all happens beneath my conscious awareness. Very few people question why they want the things they want at all.)

The assumption that my desires are all my own — this story that I tell myself — is what the French social theorist René Girard calls “The Romantic Lie.”

The Lie is that I want things independently, or that I choose all of the objects of my desire out of some secret desire chamber in my heart. I know a good thing when I see it. I know what’s desirable and what’s not.

Illustration credit: Liana Finck

Julius Caesar was an excellent Romantic Liar. When he won the battle of Zela, he famously declared: “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). If we translate these words into the language of desire, we see what he is really claiming: “I came, I desired, I conquered.”

Caesar would like all of us to believe he needs only to lay eyes on something to know whether it’s worth wanting. But Caesar is lying.

He’s like the rest of us. The desirability of the particular land on which the battle of Zela was fought had nothing to do with the land itself and everything to do with the value that his rival, the Persian king Pharnaces II, had put on it — simply by being there.

The value of objects is not objective — it’s subjective. And that subjective value is determined mimetically, based on our relationships with others. We could say that value is intersubjective: We assign value to things (and therefore desire them) according to what other people want. The implications of this social process of desire that Girard put his finger on six decades ago is something that behavioral economists and scientists are only beginning to understand.

Our models of desirethose people we look to for guidance about what to want — transfigure objects before our eyes.

Say you walk into a consignment store with a friend and see racks filled with hundreds of shirts. Nothing jumps out at you. But the moment your friend becomes enamored with one specific shirt, it’s no longer a shirt on a rack. It’s now the shirt that your friend Molly chose — the Molly who, by the way, is an assistant costume designer on the sets of major films, including your favorite one.

The moment she starts ogling one shirt, she sets it apart. It’s a different shirt than it was five seconds earlier before she started wanting it.

And it doesn’t have to be a shirt. It can be anything.

Illustration credit: Liana Finck

The path between us and the thing we want is never straight. It’s always curved. It travels through, or around, models.

Mediated desire

Models are people, groups, or things that help us know what to want.

“O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes!” says Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s hell to know we have chosen anything by another’s eyes. But we do it all the time: We choose brands, schools, and dishes at restaurants by them.

Image of artwork by Philip Guston

Humans have a built-in, instinctual radar for our most basic needs — just like animals do. If we’re trapped outside in the cold freezing, we instinctively seek shelter in the warmth.

Basic survival, sustenance, sex, warmth: These are all instinctual needs for which we have biological mechanisms to help guide us. If I’m starving and I see a juicy steak and a piece of wood in front of me, I don’t need much help to determine which one I should eat. My body tells me what to choose.

These things are not desires per se. It’s more appropriate to call them “needs.”

A desire, on the other hand, is an object that we pursue for which there is no purely instinctual basis. When it comes to desire, we don’t have a built-in mechanism (like instincts) to help guide us toward one thing more than another.

Which new model of car should we buy? What should we major in at college? What style of clothes should we wear?

The more abstract the thing is, the more mimetic desire usually comes into play. Our central nervous system certainly isn’t going to give us any clear or intelligible answers.

But models can. Models are people who show us what is worth wanting.

Rather than an internal (biological) homing device that helps us make choices, models are external signposts that steer us toward the pursuit of certain people, places, things, even lifestyles.

Models of desire are like people who seem farther up ahead on the path we’re on; they’re like people who can see around a corner that we can’t see around. We assume that they have some insight into which direction to go that we do not.

In short, we assume they have something that we do not — that they possess some quality of being that we do not. And so we follow them.

Mimetic desire means that we make many of our choices according to the desires of others — our models.

Mimetic desire in action:

The mimetic desire continuum

Mimetic desire is such a deeply ingrained part of human nature that if we choose something that nobody else seems to want, we even begin to doubt that we made the right choice.

If a high school student starts dating a classmate that none of her friends express even the slightest bit of interest in, she grows insecure. She begins to wonder whether this is really the right person to date.

We seek validation in our desires. We look for social proof. We look for models.

(Mimetic desire also explains why some people play hard to get. They are modeling desire for an idealized version of themselves. If someone provides a strong enough model of desire for themselves while simultaneously denying themselves to us, our attraction grows.)

Desire always needs something to latch onto; it can’t stay free-floating. In this sense, it operates like a bivalve that has to be attached to a substrate (a rock, or some other surface). As soon as it becomes detached from one model, it immediately attaches itself to something, or someone, else: another model.

There is no end to desire because there is no end to the models available to us in the world. There is always another one. There is always someone else who has something, or even just wants something, that we don’t want. And so off we go again.

The overnight bitcoin millionaire doesn’t start wanting less, or even simpler things; he starts taking an interest in rare fish aquariums, Nordic cooking, and traveling to obscure places he reads about in his Monocle magazines.

Desire, according to René Girard, is always for something we think we lack — or else it wouldn’t be desire at all. Desire is not object-oriented, as we commonly assume. Desire never finds fulfillment in any particular “thing.” There is literally no object or achievement or person that would ever satiate our desire. If anything, we dream up new and strange things to want the more that we have.

Desire is unique to humans in this sense. Animals don’t have abilities of abstraction, which means they can’t want things beyond their immediate worlds. Humans, on the other hand, have learned to want the most obscure and trivial things. And our mimetic nature has made us a target of manipulation by those who understand how this mechanism works.

Illustration credit: Liana Finck

This continuum is an oversimplification. In reality, the lines are blurry. Our most basic needs are also driven largely by mimesis.

Even water has transitioned from the world of needs to the world of desires. Imagine you came here from another planet that was still in the pre-bottled-water stage of evolution (a critical stage). I asked you whether you preferred Aquafina, Voss, or San Pellegrino. Which would you choose?

Sure, I could present you with the minerality breakdown and pH levels of each, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we think that’s how you will make your choice. I tell you I drink San Pellegrino. And if you’re an imitative creature like me, or if you just think I’m a more highly developed being than you — because you come from a pre-Pellegrino people — you’re going to choose San Pellegrino.

It’s revealing to think of mimetic desire along a continuum. Certain people and organizational cultures are more prone to mimesis than others. And one thing is clear, on a societal level: Any society in which people are no longer struggling with scarcity but coping with abundance will undergo an explosion of mimetic desire.

Illustration credit: Liana Finck

In this universe of desire that we find ourselves in, there is no stable hierarchy. Since desires are a product of models and not instincts, we can begin to want something new at any given time—if the right model comes along.

There’s protection against getting lost in a sea of mimetic desire, though. There are antibodies that we can develop to protect ourselves from the worst consequences of mimetic desire.

Here are a few tactics:

  • Name your models of desire. Naming anything—whether emotions, or problems, or talents—gives us more control. The same is true for our desires. It’s easier to name our “role models” because they are usually outside of our world. It’s much harder to name the models of desire that are inside of our social circle. Here’s one signal to look for: When you hear about a certain person’s achievements or goals, does it stir up any degree of tension or anxiety inside of you?
  • Map out positive flywheels of desire. The formula is simple: If I do this thing, it will help me want to do this next thing, which will help me want to do the next thing… and so on. You know how it works in fitness. There are certain things you can eat or do between now and the end of the day that will make it more or less likely that you’ll want to work out tomorrow. Many of us spend time mapping out strategies to accomplish goals but little to no time thinking about how we’re going to set ourselves up for success by cultivating the right desires to help us do the things we need to do. It’s helpful to write down or draw your own positive cycles of desire.
  • Excavate your thick desires. Thin desires are ephemeral, fleeting, and highly mimetic. They come and go. Thick desires are the ones you’ve probably been cultivating your whole life, but they are usually buried beneath a pile of thin, ultimately unfulfilling, wants. Here’s one method to begin to uncover your thick desires: Recall a time in your life when you achieved something that brought you a deep and enduring sense of satisfaction. This story could come from any time in your life. Go as far back as you want. Then ask yourself why: What specific desire did you fulfill in the achievement? String together at least four or five of these stories from different periods in your life, and a pattern will begin to emerge. Putting your finger on what some of these thick desires are is the easiest way to recognize when we’re getting pulled off course by the winds of mimetic desire.

I go much deeper into these three things and lay out 15 tactics for thriving in a world filled with mimetic desire in my upcoming book, Wanting (June 1), which you can preorder here.

Don’t forget that you’re a strong model of desire for someone in your life, whether you know it yet or not. Today is a beautiful day to stoke the desire for something that you believe will contribute to someone else’s good.

The Italians have a beautiful phrase for saying “I love you”: Ti voglio bene, which translates into English literally as “I desire your good.” What if we all developed that fundamental disposition toward our friends and neighbors?

Book cover of Wanting by Luke Burgis
Book cover of Wanting by Luke Burgis
Wanting (St. Martin’s Press)

Author of “WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.” Find more at read.lukeburgis.com