Mimetic Learning

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading more and more about René Girard. Girard is one of the most influential (and in my mind enlightening) characters of history. A philosopher, historian, author, and literary critic – Girard massively shaped and drove the world of social science. 

Girard’s fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e., all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.


“Mimetic desire” is an extremely powerful concept that applies on both a macro and micro level. Mimesis – the term meaning “imitation, representation, or mimicry” – is rooted in Greek ideologies and philosophies that can still be found throughout society today. Read the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others to hear the origin stories of mimesis. 

But what is the point? Why do I think that mimesis – comparing and copying others – is such an important observation and thing to understand? 

In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), René Girard posits that human behavior is based upon mimesis, and that imitation can engender pointless conflict. Girard notes the productive potential of competition: “It is because of this unprecedented capacity to promote competition within limits that always remain socially, if not individually, acceptable that we have all the amazing achievements of the modern world,” but states that competition stifles progress once it becomes an end in itself: “rivals are more apt to forget about whatever objects are the cause of the rivalry and instead become more fascinated with one another.”[16]

Competition is the root of all waste. Competition, economically, lowers equilibrium output. People spend years of their lives aiming to marginally beat others…for what purpose? 

I know that so much of my thinking and philosophy is shaped by the works of others. The way I look, walk, speak, etc. is all a product of my surrounding.

I strive to think for myself…I really do! But I also know that writing something is only one way of progressing…Actually doing is much harder in practice. 

I do not think “being different is enough” nor is it my goal. The devil does not necessarily need another advocate. But the truth does! 

And that is the point of this essay. Mimetic learning deviates from the truth. Copying leads to errors. It happens all of the time! 

Being conscious of the *why* behind our decisions is massively influential. Just being aware can dramatically shape our opinions and decisions. 

It also helps us stop spending time on things we do not care about. This is the easiest way to be more productive – just cut out the bullshit! 

That is why Girard, and others like Thiel, speak against competition. 

In doses, competition is positively powerful. But at the extrema, it tends to distort productivity and yield strongly diminishing returns. 

I apply this to my own life in thinking about how I spend my time and make decisions. I double down on my own strengths and “outsource” my weaknesses to other people. 

It turns out that there are other people who are actually excited and willing to do all of the things I do not want to do. So why not let them do it? Why not empower other people to be great while also freeing up more of my own time? 

It is a positive sum game! 

Also published on Medium.