Why Do We Want the Things We Want? This Theory Might Surprise You
Why do you want the things you want?
It’s an ambiguous question, one that resists a straightforward answer. I want them because I like them, we might say. But a question so deep requires a more satisfactory explanation. If you don’t know why you want to be a nurse/banker/teacher, if you don’t know why you want a blonde wife or a tall husband, if you don’t know why you want to be a Reform Jew or why you want the newest Yeezy sneakers, is it really “your” desire?
Of course, there’s a philosopher who was fascinated by such a bothersome question. His name was Rene Girard, a former professor at Stanford who passed away a few years ago. Girard’s studies in literature, history, and sociology led him to develop a pretty cynical theory for why we want things:
We don’t know what we want, so we imitate what other people want. He called this “mimetic desire.”
People are switching jobs, getting divorced, and feeling dissatisfied more than any time in history. It’s as if our values and desires are in a constant state of fluctuation, changing with the slightest off-hand comments or newest trends. Rene Girard saw it coming: we have no concept of what we truly want or value, so the next best thing is to mimic someone else’s desires.
The girl with the Louis Vuitton bag got 600 Instagram likes — drop two grand.
Being a [insert religion here] worked for the rest of my family — do the same.
He’s a lawyer that makes money and drives a cool car — go to law school.
Everyone’s having fun in L.A. and New York — pack up and move.
The compound effect of mimetic desire is that it creates a culture where we battle for products, ideologies, and lifestyles that likely won’t satisfy either person fighting for them. We unintentionally manufacture social, political, and cultural norms, then try to stand out by being really good at those norms. And if that doesn’t work, we look for something else to “want.”
Needless to say, social media turbocharges mimetic desire. Scrolling through Facebook and Instagram is like diving into a vortex of social proof. It’s where our personal tastes are formed. It’s where “likes” have more merit than authenticity or talent. It’s where we learn to want what everyone else wants.
So how can we break the cycle? The cop-out answer is to “be yourself,” but trying to be yourself without first knowing yourself is putting the cart before the horse. In fact, trying to understand may be the root of the problem; it’s the gateway into mimetic desire. The author Robert Greene teaches that each person is born with a unique skill set which can often be traced back to childhood inclinations.
This primal uniqueness naturally wants to assert and express itself…It feels like something that has its own external reality — a force, a voice, destiny. In moments when we engage in an activity that corresponds to our deepest inclinations, we might experience a touch of this: We feel as if the words we write or the physical movements we perform come so quickly and easily that they are coming from outside us. We are literally “inspired,” the Latin word meaning something from the outside breathing within us…At your birth a seed is planted. That seed is your uniqueness. It wants to grow, transform itself, and flower to its full potential. It has a natural, assertive energy to it. Your Life’s Task is to bring that seed to flower, to express your uniqueness through your work. The stronger you feel and maintain it — as a force, a voice, or in whatever form — the greater your chance for fulfilling this Life’s Task and achieving mastery.
Know yourself, says the ancient wisdom. The unexamined life is not worth living.
Dominic Vaiana’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”