At some point in our lives, many of us may have looked at the partner of a good friend and been very understanding about their reasons for liking them. Maybe too understanding in some cases. If that’s you, then you’re not alone, as this is a classified psychological phenomenon known as “mimetic desire”.
The term was coined by the French philosopher and literary theorist René Girard, who came up with it based on his own experience of “desire according to another”. This concept was inspired by the ideas of the philosophers who came before him, notably Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel.
Girard’s thesis was that anything desired by another person immediately becomes more desirable, almost like we “borrow” it from one another. He referred to this imitation stage as “mimesis” which becomes “mimetic desire” once the person decides that they want what someone else has.
In a Stanford essay, Girard wrote that those who emulate the desires of others are “ensuring for themselves lives of perpetual strife and rivalry with those whom they simultaneously hate and admire.” Once a person becomes the enemy, this becomes the third stage of “mimetic rivalry”.
A more recent study on “gaze cuing” echoed Girard’s theory by finding that the things we look at are more likely to be looked at by others as well as more likely to be viewed positively by those observers. It concluded that “we use the gaze of others to help us evaluate the potential value of objects in the world.”
Famous examples of mimetic desire
Perhaps one of the more everyday iterations of mimetic desire is when it is applied to romantic relationships. A famous example was Eric Clapton’s obsession with his best friend and Beatle George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, a desire he expressed in his song Layla.
She eventually left Harrison for him but after her relationship with Clapton ended, she attributed his lust for her to wanting what his friend had. In his autobiography, Clapton confirmed her theory, saying that he “coveted Pattie because she belonged to a powerful man who seemed to have everything I wanted.”
Harrison had his own moment of mimetic desire when he had an affair with bandmate Ringo Starr’s wife, Maureen.
Mimetic desire was also referenced in the second season of the HBO series The White Lotus when Ethan accused his friend Cameron of flirting with his wife Harper because he had “always wanted what he had”.
Mimetic desire: an important social tool?
“Mimetic desire exists because we are social beings who are constantly building and creating our identity,” Barbara Burt, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and program chair at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Phoenix in Arizona, told IFLScience.
“It is often hard for people to resist the lure of mimetic desire and it can even be insatiable because it is hardwired in our biology to have a sense of belonging,” she added.
This is because as humans, we are safer in a group, which has historically put us at an advantage for survival.
Stephen Benning, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, agrees that it may be useful for maintaining group cohesion, but “when they result in a person indulging in activities or trends that violate their values, mimetic desires would be problematic.”
He suggested that mimetic desire could derive from:
The submissive side of the dominance submission axis of the interpersonal circumplex (which describes interpersonal interactions of importance relating to our behavior and social structure).An excess of dopamine-driven desire for things that are attractive within a person’s environment and activate the brain’s chemical reward system (like going on your phone).
It could also be a combination of both or something else, he hypothesized.
“Mimetic desire is a likely product of multiple socio-psychological factors,” theorized neuroscientist Dean Burnett, PhD.
He sees status as a driver as human beings are social and hierarchical, therefore we are compelled to achieve, to become the “best one” in our social group and enhance our social standing. However, if a friend’s partner is not attractive to the group, then they are unlikely to improve our status.
Feeling mimetic desire and what to do about it
Burt felt that mimetic desire examines the tension between a person’s internal locus of control (what they want) and their external locus of control (what other people want or do). If you don’t know whether or not you are being influenced towards the person someone else desires then she advises that you need to ask yourself whether you would enjoy spending time with them alone.
She also pointed to the importance of creating your own identity based on your principles and beliefs. “Mimetic desire is stronger when we have not adopted a more long-lasting identity in our personal or professional life because we are still using identification with others to help guide us,” surmised Burt.
Psychologist Nicole Monteiro, PhD, told IFLScience that even though it can feel unique to us, desiring a person that someone else desires is actually quite common. “If a person desires their best friend’s partner, they don’t have to think they’re a bad person. As long as the person doesn’t act in the desire,” she said.
Monteiro added that mimetic desire will fade with time, so if nothing happens, there is no harm done.
Even though desire is exciting to humans, friendships also provide safety and status so it can be important to us to hold onto them. They can also last much longer than a romantic connection, especially one that only exists because it is modeled on another.
It is also possible that once a friend loses interest in a partner, the person experiencing mimetic desire may do as well.
Psychologist Becky Spelman explained some ways that you can get past an episode of mimetic desire without causing damage to your existing relationships:
Take time to reflect on yourself, your own motivations and feelings and what might be driving your attraction.Consider the potential consequences for all parties involved.Maintain clear boundaries with your best friend’s partner. Avoid engaging in behaviors that could be perceived as flirtatious or inappropriate. If necessary, communicate openly with your friend about your feelings, as honest communication can help navigate complex emotions.Redirect your energy towards personal growth and self-improvement. Engage in activities that enhance your own well-being and fulfillment, rather than fixating on unattainable desires.Seek support from a counselor if you need it.
Many crushes can fade, and although some people undoubtedly do give in to mimetic desire, it could have consequences for you and your social network, especially if your friend becomes your rival.
Once you begin to look for mimetic desire, you may see it everywhere, from celebrity relationships to the stock market. Girard’s ability to aptly frame desire in everyday situations has seen him compared to Einstein and Darwin for his contribution to social sciences.
Girard’s own advice for avoiding the pitfalls of all types of mimetic actions, including war and violence, was for humanity to “act like Christians.” However, prior to his work on mimetic theory, Girard considered himself to be an atheist until this concept persuaded him otherwise. While finding religion may be a somewhat complex solution, just asking yourself whether you truly believe in your most problematic desires could save you from making a terrible relationship decision.
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