What do you want?: A review of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

July 27, 2022
Author: Luke Burgis
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publishing Date: June 1, 2021
Pages: 304 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1250262486

My favorite way to find new books is through personal recommendations. When a friend shared that she had thought of the book Wanting almost daily since reading it, I immediately went to my library’s website and placed a hold. Now I, too, think often of the ideas in this book.

The subtitle of Burgis’ book is The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. “Mimetic desire” refers to the tendency people have to imitate other people’s wants; to make sense of the term, think of the word ‘mimic’ in relation to ‘mimetic.’ Becoming aware of our tendency to imitate can help us make better decisions and pursue more appropriate goals. 

“Becoming more aware of our tendency to imitate can help us make better decisions and pursue more appropriate goals.”

In the first part of his book, Burgis discusses the power of mimetic desire. He describes how our wants are moderated by models, some of them developmental (e.g. how a baby interacts with and imitates people) and some of them deliberate and manipulative (e.g. advertising, which has been and continues to be extremely deliberate in the way products are presented and sold). We tend to openly imitate people we admire who do not live nearby, or who occupy a distant social circle, including celebrities, bloggers, or other public figures. However, the closer we are–geographically and/or socially–to someone we admire, the more easily admiration turns into rivalry. This can be true online as well as in person; our main social circles used to be limited to in person contacts, but social media has enabled loose social connections with a large number of people, and “mimetic desire,” writes Burgis, “is the real engine of social media.”1Too often, what we see in other people’s social media posts shapes our own desires, which can feed deep dissatisfaction.2 

Mimetic desire is not merely an individual phenomenon; whole groups of people can experience a shared sense of desire, especially when the people in the group are very similar. Though this situation can potentially be positive or negative, the latter is more common. “Few things are more mimetic than aggression,” writes Burgis, adding, “The more that people in a group are alike, the more vulnerable they are to a single tension (or conflict) affecting the whole.”3

“Few things are more mimetic than aggression.”

Luke Burgis

The impact of mimesis is often negative when people are unaware of it, for example when it is used in advertising to manipulate. However, mimetic desire can also be used positively. We imitate what we admire, which can be a good thing; creativity and new ideas start with an idea that already exists. Think of movements within the arts, where new innovations result from a long series of adaptations on earlier styles.   

Desire can be channelled into a destructive cycle or a virtuous cycle.4 In the more common destructive cycle, a person’s (or organization’s shared) mindset of scarcity and fear leads to rivalry and conflict. In a virtuous cycle, by contrast, a mindset of abundance and giving leads to common good. 

To loosen the unconscious impact of mimetic desire on your own actions, Burgis suggests creating a “hierarchy of values,” naming what is most important to you personally, but also going a step further and ranking those values in order of their importance. This is helpful, he says, because “values act to order desires.”5 Articulating and prioritizing your values can help you make more clear-headed decisions. Values come from the deepest part of us. In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith writes, “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flows. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person. Thus Scripture counsels, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it’ (Proverbs 4:23). Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.”6 If you name and rank the values that motivate you, decisions become easier and less susceptible to mindless mimesis.  

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

Proverbs 4:23

The most disturbing chapter in Burgis’ book is called “The Invention of Blame.” Here he describes how, historically, scapegoating has used violence to end violence, by cathartically discharging anger. Through mimesis, people unconsciously join in casting blame onto a person who functions as a scapegoat. Almost exclusively, ancient stories of scapegoats were told from the perspective of the accusers. The Bible, however, tells stories of scapegoats from the perspectives of the victims. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is the most notable of these. The impacts of the Bible in this regard–as well as in a great many others–have been deep and long-lasting, and are still seen in our society 2000 years after Christ’s death and resurrection.7 According to Burgis, “The crucifixion of Jesus…stands at the center of human history in stark contrast to everything that surrounds it: the politics of the Roman Empire, the violent execution of criminals, and the prevailing narrative. It prompts us to do an honest examination of our own role in sustaining a cycle of violence.”8

The scapegoat mechanism is strengthened when people are not aware of the human propensity–their own included–to get caught up in mimetic influences. “What makes the scapegoat mechanism possible (is) the idea that you are not capable of it. We lack the humility to see that we are all caught up in mimetic processes.”9 Understanding how our desires are shaped, for good and for ill, is important. In describing an antidote to scapegoating, Burgis quotes Solzhenitsyn’s more nuanced view: “…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”10

In the second part of his book, Burgis describes how desire can be transformed. He starts by encouraging us to examine and understand the mimetic forces around us. He writes, “Naming the mimetic forces at work in the systems in which we operate is an important first step toward making more intentional choices.”11 Which systems of desire are part of the spheres in which you operate? There are many. 

Next, Burgis distinguishes between what he calls “thick” desires and “thin” desires. Thin desires are superficial, while thick desires are deeper and more lasting; they can “form the foundation for a good life.”12 To help readers identify these thick desires, Burgis recommends reflecting on past experiences that have been deeply fulfilling to identify deep motivations. He also describes how empathy can disrupt the negative impact that mimetic desires can have on us, describing empathy as “the ability to go into the experiences or feelings of another person–but without losing self-possession, or the ability to maintain control over our responses and to act freely, out of our own core.”13 To have empathy means you can share someone else’s experiences but not begin to imitate them. 

“To have empathy means you can share someone else’s experiences but not begin to imitate them.”

In his final chapter, Burgis writes, “Through our relationships, we help other people with their wants in one of three ways: we help them want more, we help them want less, or we help them want differently.”14 This sentence helped me understand one of the things that deeply motivates me (one of my “thick desires,” to use his terminology): a desire to look beneath the surface, beyond the habits of everyday life; to figure out why we humans do the things we do; to ask whether or not the reasons are compelling; to ask questions that might help us rethink and adjust our actions where necessary. 

Scattered throughout his book, Burgis includes a description of fifteen tactics that can help readers to identify thin, mimetic desires and to develop thick desires. I have already mentioned creating a hierarchy of values. Another is to “find sources of wisdom that withstand mimesis.”15These tend to be sources that have stood the test of time.16 If you read this book and/or work through the exercises/tactics, you will come away with a much deeper understanding of your world and of yourself and what motivates you. Like me, you might find yourself regularly startled by an awareness of your own thin mimetic desires in times and places that you least expect them–and more determined to cultivate and communicate thick, robust desires.

About the Author
  • Dawn Berkelaar lives in southern Ontario with her husband Edward and their four children. She is a scientist, editor, writer, teacher and home maker. Additionally, she is a regular contributor at in All things.

  1. pg. 64  

  2. A friend pointed out that, when it comes to social media, an awareness of mimetic desire can help us use it more positively. The tone and content of your posts impact how others interact in those virtual spaces, and also influence what information comes back to you. For more on this concept, see the section on Mimetic Rivalry in Donald Roth’s review of the book Wanting.  

  3. pg. 67  

  4. To borrow terminology from Al Wolters’ book Creation Regained, desire is a structural part of creation; what we desire and what we do with our desires are directional.  

  5. pg. 97  

  6. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, pg. 2   

  7. Burgis writes, “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.”  

  8. pg. 129-130  

  9. pg. 129  

  10. From The Gulag Archipelago  

  11. pg. 141  

  12. pg. 157  

  13. pg. 156  

  14. pg. 214  

  15. pg. 58  

  16. The Bible is the most important of these sources of wisdom for a Christian. It is full of directives and reminders about what we should want—what we were made to want, and what will ultimately be the most satisfying to pursue. We are to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), learning to make God’s priorities our own.  

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