The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life | Luke Burgis on Venture Stories

Key Takeaways

  • Mimetic theory is an explanation of human behavior and culture created by French philosopher Rene Girard
    • “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”Rene Girard
  • “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
    • If you can influence what people desire then you can determine what people will do 
  • “Envy is the form in which mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry manifests itself the most” – Luke Burgis
    • You would only desire to be like someone who you consider superior to yourself in some regard, and most will naturally feel envious because they feel that they deserve this also
  • “Most people are not responding to objective values at all, the number one value they are responding to is mimetic value. In other words, they’re just responding to the status of another person and that person’s desire.”Luke Burgis

Books Mentioned

Intro

  • Luke Burgis (@lukeburgis) is an author, professor, startup founder, and also Managing Partner at Fourth Wall Ventures
  • Host: Erik Torenberg (@eriktorenberg)

Mimetic Theory

  • Mimetic theory is an explanation of human behavior and culture created by French philosopher Rene Girard
    • “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”Rene Girard
  • Aristotle wrote that imitation is innate to human beings in order to learn things like language and culture
    • Girard expands on this and believes imitation is far more pervasive in modern society than we think and is in some respects the basis of civilization

Imitation in Society

  • Babies openly imitate what they see and it’s very common for kids to imitate others through role models
    • For western adults, imitation is generally looked down upon by society as concepts like progress are heralded, but this was not always the case
    • Until the Enlightenment, innovation and progress were looked down upon by those who wrote down their opinions. Being outside of mainstream thought wasn’t just considered a difference of opinion, but heretical and dangerous thoughts which undermined peace and order.
  • The feudal rulers of medieval Europe claimed that the hierarchical insitutions they ran obtained their political legitimacy from God 
    • An abused serf could not complain because, in this intellectual tradition, to speak out against the political system of your feudal overlords was to speak against God 
    • The Enlightenment was a change in collective consciousness against this old way of thinking and towards new ideas though it is much more and far more complicated than this generalization

Imitation in Action

  • External mediator of desire
    • This refers to the imitation of those who are above your social status or people in the past which is considered acceptable
    • Largely seen as harmless because it serves as a goal to strive towards
  • Internal mediator of desire
    • This refers to those within your social circle who you compare yourself to and ultimately derive your desires from
    • This is where desires can warp peoples’ minds negatively and make them act out of hatred as internal mediators are perceived as competition
  • Be mindful of who you are imitating rather than subconsciously allowing popular culture to determine who you should aspire to be like instead 
  • If you run a business your employees will naturally compete with each other. Aim to structure your business so this competition is about accomplishments rather than work prestige.
  • “Envy is the form in which mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry manifests itself the most” Luke Burgis
    • You would only desire to be like someone who you consider superior to yourself in some regard, and most will naturally feel envious because they feel that they deserve this also

Effect of the Internet

  • “Everybody has to be an entrepreneur in some sense as they detach from traditional institutions” – Luke Burgis
    • The concept of being loyal to a company for years and being rewarded for that loyalty doesn’t exist anymore 
  • The internet, and especially social media, has basically expanded your social circle to be everyone else on the internet
    • The people on your social media feed are who you compare yourself and those at the top of the social media hierarchy become the driving force of culture 
    • “We all know that social media exacerbates and fuels mimetic rivalry” – Luke Burgis
  • “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
    • If you can influence what people desire then you can determine what people will do 

Determining Value

  • People place different importance on different aspects of life. Some people primarily value economic utility, some value aesthetics, and others value morality.
    • “Most people are not responding to objective values at all, the number one value they are responding to is mimetic value. In other words, they’re just responding to the status of another person and that person’s desire.”Luke Burgis
  • One can easily view what WallStreet Bets does as a form of changing mimetic perceptions and valuations
    • The understanding of mimetic theory doesn’t help to just understand events but also profit from them
  • Most people don’t even value art for aesthetic reasons, but because of the artist and the painting’s scarcity
    • It seems only natural then that people would seek to instrumentalize this aspect of art through Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)

Business

  • It’s not viable for everyone to be an entrepreneur and start their own business as of now
    • On top of that, not everyone is suited for entrepreneurship and would excel in another environment
  • The public origin story of large companies is never true 
    • It is a warped and distorted image made to appeal to the public and particularly investors
  • “In mimetic theory, the idea of founding myths always covers up some kind of original violence”Luke Burgis
    • This can apply to companies as well as nations 
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