Summary of Wanting by Luke Burgis

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:January 6, 2024

Chapter 3: Social Contagion: Cycles of Desire

Aggression is highly mimetic.

In Romeo and Juliet, the two families don’t fight because they’re different, but because they’re the same.

The more people are alike, the more they are vulnerable to a single tension affecting the whole.

This keeps two fighting entities stuck in an endless cycle.

Desire doesn’t spread like information; it spreads like energy.

This energy can lead to the creation of:

  1. A cycle of positive desire that unites people.
  2. A cycle of negative desire that divides them.

In Freshmanistan, the stakes of mimetic desire are higher (due to the proximity of people). Most of what we talk about happens in Fresmanistan.

Lamborghini VS Ferrari

Lamborghini was a rich tractor maker in Italy, in a region where Maserati, Ducati, and Ferrari also had their factories. He one day bought a Ferrari but was displeased with its quality. So he tweaked it himself and enjoyed racing Ferrari’s test drivers with his older model.

One day he met Ferrari and told him his cars weren’t good. Ferrari answered that it was because he didn’t know how to drive them. So Lamborghini decided to build the best sports car the world ever saw.

His mimetic rivalry with Ferrari had the benefit of driving innovation.

Use imitation to drive innovation

Anti-mimetic tactic 4: Use imitation to drive innovation
Imitation and innovation aren’t opposite concepts. Innovation often comes after imitation, when imitation is improved. Those who try not to imitate are stuck in a mimetic rivalry with everyone else by trying to be original.
As the fastest way to humility is not thinking more about humility but thinking less frequently of oneself, the safest route to innovation is also an indirect one.

When Lamborghini’s engineers asked him to make a racing car to go head-to-head with Ferrari, Lamborghini said no.

He knew there would be no end to the rivalry otherwise. So he stopped it before all hell broke loose.

Memes and Mimetic Theory

Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” in 1976 to describe the spread of ideas, behaviors, and phrases across time and space.

The definition of memes is cultural units of information that spread from person to person through a process of imitation (Eg: the sentence “what happens in Vegas…”). Dawkins’ definition is the definition we will use, not the Internet memes.

Memes and mimetic desire theories were based on the idea that imitation is at the foundation of human behavior. But the theories weren’t the same.

MemesMimetic Desire
The degree of survival of a meme depends on its perfect reproduction. Needs to be fixed. Desires are not fixed, but highly volatile.
The spread of memes through imitation leads to the development and sustainability of culture.Culture is formed primarily through the imitation of desires, not things.
Memes spread like viruses. Those who spread them are involuntary carriers.What desire is imitated does not matter. What matters is who is the model the imitation comes from.
Imitation is neutral or positive. Imitation has often negative consequences.
Memes VS Mimetic Desire

The Flywheel Effect

Mimetic desire moves in one or two cycles.

  • Cycle 1: negative cycle, leads to conflict or rivalry. “Other people have something I don’t have and we can’t both have it”. -> scarcity mindset
  • Cycle 2: positive cycle, leads to unity where people desire the same end. -> abundance mindset.

The flywheel effect is detailed in Jim Collins’ Good to Great book. The idea is that starting a company is like pushing on a giant flywheel long enough to make it move until it acquires sufficient energy that it works with you, and not against you.

Basically, it’s a virtuous cycle.

Mimesis works this way. It accelerates in a non-linear way, and one desire can lead to another.


  1. My friend goes to the gym so I also want to go.
  2. I go to the gym so now I need to eat clean and stop drinking to see some results.
  3. This means I no longer go to bars late at night, so I can wake up earlier.
  4. Etc

This is a positive flywheel of desires.

Now, there are also vicious cycles aka negative flywheels. Eg: a company takes money from customer support to invest in marketing, which decreases good reviews, which…etc.

Anti-mimetic tactic 5: Start positive flywheels of desire
1. I want to wake up early so that
2. I can go to the gym so that
3. I sleep well at night so that
4. I can wake up early.

The Destructive Cycle

Founder of Zappos Tony Hsieh tried to build a city after selling Zappos to Amazon. The only determining criterion was happiness. Everyone had to be happy. There were no rules, no structure, and nobody to imitate.

It ended up a failure and three people part of the project committed suicide.

The cycle happened like this: desire -> rivalry -> chaos and collision.

Why? Because Tony’s purpose was to get as many people to meet as many people to “generate new ideas” (aka his purpose was chaos and collision).

But all these people were the same. So they all compared themselves to everyone, which induced lots of anxiety.

image 22
Mimetic rivalry VS mimetic crisis

In 2014, Zappos tried the holacracy management system, where different independent teams work towards the same goal in a flat organization.

It didn’t work. People need to be in a relationship with models, which this system didn’t take into account.

We are hierarchical creatures. This is why we like listicles and ratings so much. We have a need to know how things stack up, how things fit together.

Zappos became as a result more political. People didn’t know how to do their jobs anymore. They were afraid to get fired, so they had to ensure their future with office politics.

The original mission of Zappos was “make buying shoes easy”. The last one was “delivering happiness”. But when nobody knows how to find happiness, nobody has a model to follow to deliver it.

In Freshmanistan, this leads to conflict.

People are organized in a hierarchical structure because it reflects their own inner structure of desire (we desire certain things more than others) and connect them to other people through mimetic desire.

C.S. Lewis calls this the “inner ring”, the desire to be a part of a group and the terror of being left outside.

If you abolish all hierarchies, there’s no ring to be inside of.

Hierarchical Values

Marketing, money, and models distort people’s desires if they don’t know what they want.

Eg: if a university professor talks about a certain major, most students will go for that major, even if they don’t truly want to do that.

This is because they don’t have a hierarchy of values (that is, they don’t know what they want). They don’t know what they want the most and what they want the least.

The hierarchy solves that.

Anti-mimetic tactic 6: Establish and communicate a clear hierarchy of values
This is an antidote
to mimetic conformity. This way, you will know what to do in times of crisis.

The Collapse of Desire

Hierarchies are more effective in times of crisis than flat organizations.

Chapter 4: The Invention Of Blame: An Underrated Social Discovery

Not all of our desires should be fulfilled (Eg: dangerous desires).

Out-of-control mimesis makes desires spread and collide violently.

This creates a mimetic crisis. To solve this, humans assembled together against one person or thing which they accuse of being responsible for their ills, and eliminate it. This is the sacrifice of the scapegoat.

They protect themselves from what they want—from their mimetic desires, which have brought them into conflict with one another—by directing their desire to vanquish their rivals to a single fixed point.

Sacred Violence

Girard thought there was a close connection between desire and violence, which worked in cycles. Violence starts out with mimetic desire. Everyone is trying to impose their own will on others which we say we do out of love, but often in fact do with despise.

These small interpersonal conflicts, if not stopped, eventually evolve into…war.

In the past, wars ended with signed accords and a clear loser and winner. Not so today, as people are rarely admitting they’re waging war.

As a result, it is difficult to stop the escalation. Ancient societies knew that, and they had created the scapegoat mechanism to prevent it.

When societies were threatened with disorder, they used violence to get rid of the violence.

This practice called the scapegoat mechanism would turn a war of everyone against everyone into a war of everyone against the scapegoat.

Girard thought this act was foundational to all cultures.

The Danger of Purity

The Jews, the Greeks, and the Egyptians, all transferred their sins onto animals (or humans) which they then sacrificed as a redemption act to their gods.

The event was supposed to help with catharsis, the release of strong emotions during an unrelated event.

The scapegoat isn’t randomly decided – it is always different than the rest. They come to be perceived as monstrous. Eliminating them is the only way to fix everything.

Saving People from Themselves

The contagion of violence is like electricity in water. It happens only in a Freshmanistan-like type of place (aka, a swimming pool), not really in Celebristan (the ocean). That is, it happens between a group of people close to each other. Mimetic desire creates rivalries and the social order of the group breaks down.

Everyone’s angry, that is, all the individuals in the group are equally terrorized. Until one of the members of the group indicates a scapegoat as the source of the general confusion.

The first accusation, the first act of destruction towards the scapegoat is the hardest one because there is no model to get it from. The one that follows is much easier since it had a model. Then the third accusation is easier than the second one. Quickly, the entire mob is accusing the scapegoat.

As we can see, they’re making the mistake of looking outward for the cause of their disputes, which is in fact, internal.

The more the scapegoat defends itself, the more the mob’s rage grows.

image 26
The functioning of mobs. Mobs start with a bunch of individuals equally angry at one another. In the second part, one individual indicates a scapegoat. In the third part, the mob turned against the scapegoat.

There are three possible ends to the scapegoat story.

  1. The goat is cast out from the group and can no longer come to the community.
  2. At the peak of their rage, everyone magically becomes rational again and writes a social contract to prevent this from happening in the future.
  3. The goat is killed or physically harmed.

A mob is a hyper-mimetic organism in which individual members can easily lose personal agency.

Individual psychology is different from crowd psychology. When individuals surrender to the crowd, the crowd acts as one united body.

The scapegoat mechanism works better in times of instability.

image 27
The destructive mimetic cycle.

The Path of Least Resistance

In real life, scapegoats have a distinctive feature.

  • Physical or mental features
  • They live on the margins of society
  • They’re considered deviants in some way
  • They’re unable to fight back
  • They arrive out of nowhere

All scapegoats have the power to unite people and defuse mimetic conflict.

Girard highlighted that scapegoats were often kings, beggars – or both.

Anti-mimetic tactic 7: Arrive at judgments in anti-mimetic ways
When people vote or poll in groups, it’s essential they make their decision without any models aka they need to make the decision by themselves.

The Joy of Hate Watching

Trump built his cult-like figure with the show The Apprentice where he fired people on TV for 12 years. He was the scapegoat executioner, hence resolving the mimetic crisis which is one of the best things to do to receive political support.

This formula is used almost exclusively in reality TV nowadays.

Girard believed that in the beginning, the scapegoat mechanism developed spontaneously.

With time, it became a ritual allowing everyone to get into catharsis. To the sacrifice of humans substituted the sacrifice of animals, to which substituted firing people, mass incarceration, or social media cancellation.

The Scapegoat Wins

Let’s now speak about religion and how it relates to the scapegoat mechanism.

The goal of religious thinking is practical. That is, it must help you act in a certain way that has an impact on your life.

Nearly all people are religious in the sense that they subconsciously believe that sacrifice brings peace.

Sacrificial thinking is deeply ingrained in our psyche: If [insert preferred scapegoat] was not there, then all would be well.

-> our violence is good. The one from others is bad.

An understanding of the scapegoat mechanism happened after Judaism and Christianity unfolded.

The main difference between these and the other religions was that they told the story of the scapegoat from the point of view of the scapegoat, hence helping us feel some pity for it.

Mimetic desires have always been a problem in human societies.

The prohibition of the scapegoat mechanism may have been preceded by the prohibition of mimetic rivalrous desire altogether:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

(Aure’s Note: maybe the failure of the 10th commandment led to the ban of the scapegoat mechanism).

While the 9th previous commandments forbid actions, the 10th forbids desire.

The Bible is riffed with stories speaking against the scapegoat mechanism because the story is told from the perspective of the scapegoat, including Christ’s crucifixion. Furthermore, what made his crucifixion so particular was that it did not unite, but divided even more.

After his crucifixion, Jesus’s disciples came forward and said that not only had it not been fair, but that Jesus was alive.

The reader is then forced to identify with the crowd looking for a scapegoat, but also with the folly of that crowd.

It was the first time such a story was told from this point of view. Traditionally, the scapegoat is guilty because the scapegoaters are the ones left to tell the story.

The story of Jesus forced people to realize their own violence, and the scapegoat mechanism lost its power.

The world is going crazy today not because we scapegoat too much, but because this story made us aware of all of those victims – and we don’t know what to do to help them.

Self-Awareness, Self-Hatred

No culture or people has ever had a concern for victims as much as ours.

According to Girard, this awareness comes directly from the Bible.

Almost all movements today speak in terms of defending victims, whoever they are.

One of the great ironies of the modern world is that Western democracies like the United States, in which there is a separation between church and state, have made the defense of victims an absolute moral imperative even as they have largely expunged religion from public life.

The culture war ends up being a formidable mimetic rivalry of a secular VS a religious group, both looking to defend the victims.

In the past, victims had no power. Today, victims have all the power.

The scapegoat mechanism nowadays is a reversed scapegoat mechanism where the victim is recognized as having been treated unfairly.

While the defense of victims is good, victimization has become weaponized where victims use their status as a way to gain power, making new scapegoats themselves.

This mechanism is possible precisely because people believe they are not capable of doing harm.

This is what makes the scapegoat mechanism possible: no one is aware of it when it happens.

Signs of Contradiction

The crucifixion of Jesus is a radical contrast to human nature and its history. It compels us to self-observe and look at our own role in the cycle of violence.

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