January 27, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 01: Mimetic desire, perspective blindness, and logical thinking

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. Mimetic desire: Why you want what you want

“In the universe of desire, there is no clear hierarchy. People don’t choose objects of desire the way they choose to wear a coat in the winter. Instead of internal biological signals, we have a different kind of external signal that motivates these choices: models. Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting. It is models—not our “objective” analysis or central nervous system—that shape our desires. With these models, people engage in a secret and sophisticated form of imitation that Girard termed mimesis (mi-mee-sis), from the Greek word mimesthai (meaning “to imitate”).” — From Wanting by Luke Burgis

We want things—money, love, fame, respect, prestige and power. A fantastic abundance of desires graces our western culture. We think of desire as a linear relationship between us and the thing we want. If somebody questions our reasoning, we often explain ourselves in one of two ways. Either we want an object because it suits our preferences, or we highlight its objective qualities. Claiming that we choose autonomously, away from the influences and desires of others, is what René Girard calls ‘the romantic lie’. ‍ René Girard (1923-2015), a French social scientist, changed the world of desire with mimetic theory. In Girard’s view, desires are not intrinsic but external, determined by those around us. We traditionally think of desire as a relationship between ourselves and the desirable object. However, Girard’s mimetic theory explains the triangular relationship of desire as beginning with the subject and mimicking a model to obtain the desired object. Models are people who signal what is worth wanting, motivating us to imitate those around us.

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” — René Girard

Mimetic desire occurs in the following order: models desire objects; subjects imitate the models, which mimics the desire for the objects. Desire is not a straight line but flows through invisible models.

2. Risk detection and avoidance

“It is also a scientific fact, and a shocking one, that both risk detection and risk avoidance are not mediated in the “thinking” part of the brain but largely in the emotional one (the “risk as feelings” theory). The consequences are not trivial: It means that rational thinking has little, very little, to do with risk avoidance. Much of what rational thinking seems to do is rationalize one’s actions by fitting some logic to them.” — From Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

By recognizing that we make most of our decisions out of the emotional part of our brain, we can build logical scaffolding around our risk detection and avoidance strategies. When our brain cannot be trusted, syllogisms (see below) can prove invaluable.​

Practical Advice

1. Reaching logical conclusions with syllogisms

“Aristotle investigated the methods by which several propositions could be linked together to produce an entirely new proposition. Two propositions (called the premises) would be taken to be true, and another (called the conclusion) would follow from the premises, forming a three-line argument, called a syllogism. “A syllogism accepts only those conclusions that are inescapable from the stated premises.

The propositions in the first two lines are the premises; the proposition in the third line is the conclusion. If the argument is valid and you accept the premises as true, then you must accept the conclusion as true.

Consider the following syllogism:

All poodles are dogs. All dogs are animals. Therefore, all poodles are animals. The three propositions above form a valid argument (albeit a simplistic and obvious one). Since the conclusion follows of necessity from the two (true) premises, it is inescapable.” — From Logic Made Easy by Deborah J. Bennett

Isolating opinion from fact can prevent illogical thinking. We often base our beliefs on generalizations resulting in incorrect conclusions. We do this for the sake of ease. It seems like a lot of effort to find facts that support our positions in every area of our lives. But, what are the consequences of not verifying our beliefs? If we agree that our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions shape our lives, then our beliefs are the atomic building blocks for our existence. We each have a motive to believe our truth, but we are better off with the truth.

As well as our own truths, we must face the truths of the world. Journalism has become synonymous with content creation - the imperative for facts has been displaced with the need for engagement.

The Columbia University Libraries published a study by Canadian reporter Craig Silverman revealing how news websites spend more time spreading inaccurate information than verifying their own claims. News organizations now have a vested interest in propagating misinformation, as falsehoods spread faster than truths.

Being able to cultivate an imperative for truth has become a vital need and a rare commodity.

2. Perspective blindness

“Perspective blindness’ refers to the fact that we are oblivious to our own blind spots. We perceive and interpret the world through frames of reference but we do not see the frames of reference themselves. This, in turn, means that we tend to underestimate the extent to which we can learn from people with different points of view.” — From Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

We judge others based on incomplete information, causing us to believe an inaccurate narrative. This extends to decisions, opinions, beliefs and eventually, our identity. Through perspective blindness, we construct a distorted view of reality, which becomes the map we use to navigate life.

The incompleteness is not the issue, but our failure to recognize it is. If we acknowledge that much remains unseen, we can keep an open mind as situations unfold.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Epictetus on showing that you read through your actions and character:

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”

2. Charlie Munger on forming airtight opinions:

“I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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