stop copying me: desire and design thinking

Today we’re talking about mimetic theory. It’s an interesting philosophy that I only just came across. When I first heard the name, it had to do with memes because memes are powerful ways of communication nowadays. If you ask me so much, communication happens through memes that I almost think are more effective than real reporting when sharing the truth.

Girard’s Mimetic theory tells us that most people’s desires are driven by mimicry: we really have no free will, but we mimic everything around us. Makes some sense, no?

As tiny children, human beings learn by mimicry. The moment we are born and open our eyes, we are incredibly observant of the world around us. We use mimicry to learn, to speak, to act. However, once we learn to mimic all of the world around us to determine our behavior, for some reason, we internalize this mimicry and feel that our actions have become our own. But where did our actions originate?

Our preferences – our loves and our hates are driven by our desires. Therefore, if we truly understand design thinking, we need to understand the root of these desires.

His underlying thesis is that all conflict is driven by shared desire. Our desires are driven because we want something that somebody else already has – and we will fight to gain that.

This is something that somebody else has or somebody else has asked for. We will say we will rationalize in our brains if this is something we want to; if you think about it’s an extreme way of thinking about keeping up with the Joneses. Do human beings only ever want what other people want. Can we distill down every human desire to the desire for something someone else wants?

You can see this in action the next time you go to dinner in a restaurant and note how many folks end up ordering the same thing, or the same type of thing, based on who ordered first. For example, if the first person orders a salad, then the following folks tend to order something healthy as well. The same goes for steak or drinks. We are constantly copying each other.

This is why social proof is so powerful today. I’ve blogged in the past about the loss of Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Influence and how some of those principles continue to be maintained and others have disappeared. For example, if you ask me, reciprocity is gone, but this principle of social proof is more powerful than ever.

When you couple memetic theory with social proof, you get a powerful combination, driving your customers’ positive and negative thoughts. Before the advent of social media, if the memetic theory is to be believed, our exposure to others and their desires (which drive our desires) was limited to what we could experience in person or via traditional media. This was limited in scope – which limited the scope of our desires.

However, with social media, we all now have an intimate look into the lives of billions of others – and most of the time, what is posted in social media ends up being an overly positive account of their lives or outright falsehoods and unreal augmentations – like photo filters and outright photoshopping.

Others boast about the awesome things happening in their lives, which can drive us insane with a desire for the same kind of life or drives us into depression because that life is unavailable to us.

Does memetic theory drive all of consumer desire? Is supercharged envy the base of all design thinking? Did I order a cybertruck because I thought it looked cool and futuristic or was it because everyone else wanted one? Even my desire for a futuristic automobile may have been driven from the science fiction I read as a kid – making me desire to create the worlds portrayed in the novels I read?

It’s an interesting theory. I assume that some people have debunked it, and some people think it’s important – but ever since I read, I thought it made a lot of sense.

It’s not a 100 percent driver of what consumers want – but I consider it yet another essential building block in the puzzle to figure out what customers desire, and that’s important for anyone who’s innovating, building a startup, or building a business.

It definitely needs more thinking.


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