Wanting by Luke Burgis


Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life


Luke Burgis

Year Published


What is Desire?

Most of what we consider desires (the stuff in Maslow’s hierarchy) are better classified as needs. Needs are things like food, sex, shelter, and security.

Desires are different for a few reasons:

  • We have no instinctual basis for wanting them
  • They’re constantly in flux

“But after meeting our basic needs as creatures, we enter into the human universe of desire.”

Rene Girard, a Stanford professor, conducted pioneering research on desire — his research is the basis for Burgis’ book.

Mimetic Desire

Mimetic desire is a concept that combines mimesis with desire.

Mimesis is a term coined by Girard that describes the tendency of people to imitate others. Those who they imitate are called models: people or things that show us what is worth wanting.

Models are easy to recognize. Just think about your role models (e.g. parents). But models of desire are hard to recognize.

“It’s deceivingly difficult to figure out why you bought certain things; it’s extraordinarily hard to understand why you strive toward certain achievements. So hard that few people dare to ask.”

Mimetic desire is when what you want is based on what a model shows you is worth wanting. I could put it more succinctly, but I’m going to move on.

Why Mimetic Desire is Important

Mimetic desire drives the desires of single human being — except for those who explicitly understand and opt out of it. However, even then, mimesis still has impact.

”Today value is largely mimetically driven rather than attached to fixed, stable points (like college degrees). This has created opportunities for anyone who can stand out from the crowd. This has positive and negative consequences.”

We are living in “liquid modernity:” a phase of history with no cultural agreed-upon models to follow, no fix points of reference.

Mimetic desire is also compounded by the fact that the world is becoming increasingly complex; “the proportion of total available knowledge that any single person has is microscopic.” Therefore, we turn to models, most of whom gain their expert status through mimesis (people who got called an expert by the right people).

Models and experts matter because “we don’t care about what is being modeled as much as we care who is modeling it.”

That’s why tabloid magazines are quick to report on what celebrities are wearing to galas and red carpets.

Blame & Scapegoating

Scapegoating, by its nature, is mimetic: lots of people agree that one person, or one thing, is the cause of a problem that has a myriad of complex causes.

Scapegoating is highly irrational, but its mimetic function enables it to persist. The first stone is hard to throw, the second is easier, and it gets easier from there.

It holds us back. It’s an easy way out — but we’ve used it because it resolves painful mimetic crises. As Rene Girard said, “we didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches.”

The scapegoat mechanism is ancient. It isn’t as powerful as today, though; it likely began to lose its power whenever gospels were written. Gospels told the story from the perspective of the victim: “the reader is meant to identify with the crowd, but also to see the folly of the crowd and to move beyond it — to finally, for the first time, grasp the truth about human violence.”


There’s a lot of information out there about how to achieve goals, from the SMART goal method to the FAST method and on and on. But there isn’t as much out there about how to pick goals.

Choosing goals is driven by mimesis. For example, if you want to lose weight, are you doing so because you want to feel better and have more energy, or because you want to look more like someone you saw on Instagram?

Solution: Understand Thick Desires

Thick desires are desires determined by things we find personally fulfilling. They are not dependent on the state of the world or what other people are doing or saying.

Cultivating thick desires (better goals) requires you to understand what you find fulfilling.

Solution: Look Forward Not Sideways

Envy is an engine of destructive mimetic desire, and it often comes from the chasing of prestige. “Prestige” is measured relative to what we perceive someone else has that we lack, so it’s a breeding ground for envy.”

Envy makes us look sideways instead of forward. Instead of looking ahead and chasing the things that truly fulfill us, that we truly care about, we look sideways and compare ourselves to the people around us.

We begin to desire the prestige signals they have, and before we know it, our desires have been perverted away from what we care about, and we suddenly resent everyone around us.

The issue with envy is that you will (almost) never be the absolute best at something — at least, best by some standard that can be measured by prestige signals. Someone will always be more skilled, wealthier, more attractive, whatever. So you’ll be stuck in a constant state of resenting and comparing, instead of chasing what you care about.

Look forward, not sideways — this will ensure your desires are true to who you are, not determined by the prestige that you think other people have.

Solution: Become Anti-Mimetic

To be anti-mimetic is to be unaffected by mimetic desire (inasmuch is possible).

Mimetic = your desires resemble other peoples’

Negatively mimetic = your desires are the inverse of other peoples’ (usually the mimetic model will be someone you dislike; someone who you want to differentiate yourself from)

Anti-mimetic = your desires do not mirror or do not tend to be an inverse of other peoples’ desires. Instead, they’re determined by what you’ve personally found to be fulfilling

To be anti-mimetic is a beautiful thing. You’re not basing any part of yourself on other people — whether that would involve copying others, or trying hard not to be like others.

Instead, you, as a person, are based on what you personally determine to be important — nothing is dependent on others.


Wanting is a must-read for every person. I don’t care what you’re going to do with your life; this book is important because it helps you navigate the world of mimetic desire, to which we are all subject.

It’s ironic I’m telling you to read it; I’m functioning as a mimetic model. But models are positive things as long as you understand who or what they are, how they are influencing you, and you hold that the influence they are exerting is a positive thing.

Models are harmful if you don’t know they exist and don’t know how they’re secretly telling you what’s worth wanting.

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