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The Other Imitation Game

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

Nihal Dhar explores the underrated role of imitation in our world today, from memes, market bubbles to the renaissance.

A lot has changed over the course of history, especially when it comes to the dissemination of knowledge and progress in the world. But there are also some things that haven’t changed, such as Human Nature. Basic emotions such as greed, fear, envy, happiness, coupled with the tendency to signal status haven’t changed at all. The environment in which these emotions play out may have, but not much else. The core of these elements shows up even today in our interactions with family, friends, loved ones, music, movies, financial markets and plenty else. This is best encapsulated in Twain’s famous remark “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.

People tend to explain the “rhyme” of this cyclicality using the proverbial pendulum, between fear and greed- a function of human nature. These evergreen emotional extremes impact our decision making. However, they conveniently happen to be more visible or obvious to us in the arena of financial markets. This is because it is still something that can be measured or quantified, albeit perhaps imperfectly and mostly ex-post. But there are other under-appreciated components of human nature that impact our lives tremendously. One such component is imitation or mimetic desire. “Mimetic Desire” is the core insight of 20th century French philosopher/anthropologist: Rene Girard. This is not to say there aren't other components that affect desire, but that this may account for more than most realize.

To contexualize: Mimetic Theory Project, a free resource for all things Girard, summarized Girard’s mimetic theory succinctly: “We are evolutionarily programmed to imitate—to learn and copy from other people. Aside from the basic needs (the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), desire for any particular object or experience is not hard-coded into our DNA; we’ve learned to want it by watching other people. The center of gravity of all desire, according to Girard, is not the object or the experiences we pursue. It’s the other person from whom we’ve learned them. Girard calls these people the mediators or models for our desire. We are not so much acquiring a desire for an object as learning to mimic a model and striving to become them or become like them. Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire. We don’t want objects; we want to be—like someone else.”

According to Girard, people incorrectly assume the relationship with desire as a straight line, being two dimensional: person A desiring an object. However, in his estimation, desire is actually triangular or three dimensional. Person A’s desire for an object is influenced or mediated by a person B. This person B serves as the hidden role model by possessing characteristics desired by person A. Person A would like to be more like this other hidden model in some respects. The reason for admiration could be as abstract as the esteemed respect they command from peers in their industry, how the entire room alway laughs at their jokes at dinner parties, or how somehow they’re always known as the trendy or fashionable one in the group. The model begins to influence our desire for objects, which are actually devoid of meaning. The meaning comes from the person modelling the desire.

The distance between the subject and the model matters tremendously with regards to the odds of conflict according to Girard. When this role model is far away, and do not inhabit the realm of our personal world… the relationship is stable and never at risk of conflict. This is like the relationship between an average joe and a celebrity. The celebrity may influence desires but the relationship between them and the celebrity is never going to intersect. However, when there isn’t much distance between us and our role model, be it friends, family members, or other social peers…then, we disguise this admiration or jealousy. Alex Danco notes in his essay “Secrets about People” that “As our mimicry intensifies, we will progressively go to greater lengths in order to disguise our feelings, and what initially was a feeling of admiration will mutate into envy that we desperately try to hide. We begin to do all sorts of things that seem out of character – attack our model for all various reasons; slander them, sabotage them, do our best to ruin them”.

This seemingly abstract theory, once digested, slowly begins to appear everywhere around you, and then eventually you see it in yourself too. The recent popularity of Girard’s ideas hasn’t escaped the meme-ification of this behavior either. On Twitter, the joke of “I too, am a contrarian” hits at the same exact ironic imitative behavior that now fans of his ideas have become victim to! We can’t escape imitation. It’s not as though mimesis is bad. It has genuine utility: how we learn language, culture, and trivial things like being at a hand wash with a confusing tap, you peek at the person next to you to see what they did to get the water running!

Author, Luke Burgis, in his fantastic new book, “Wanting” covers Girard in a tremendously digestible way. Burgis covers an example: a high school girl who posts a selfie with her new boyfriend. Immediately her ex who broke up with her only a few weeks ago, confident in his decision, starts texting her again. The modern day colloquial advice stemming from this notion is play hard to get: “You don't know what you want,” she tells him. She’s right, he didn’t know what he wanted until he saw her with another guy. Her renewed desirability has nothing to do with the selfie, but is a product of her being desired by another man. Not just any other man, but one who possesses all the characteristics that the ex boyfriend would like to have himself: a senior who is captain of the basketball team and won a scholarship to play at a top college.”

Mimetics can influence all things in someone's life from love interests, to style and even one’s career choices. It’s like the large cluster of college graduates from Orange County CA discovering their sovereign desire to work in commercial real estate. In New York City you will see “Finance bros” find Patagonia vests to be the marker of uniform. Those with inclinations towards the world of Hipster-dom will congregate around the neighborhood of Bushwick wearing denim overalls and orange beanies. We all have a friend or few, and this might include yourself too, whose accent changes depending on which country they’ve been spending large amounts of time in. “Vibe” is something people often use when discussing restaurants, holiday destinations, fashion brands, neighborhoods etc. This elusive yet intuitively illustrative word is simply characterizing the mimetic environment created by a cluster of other people. This is all influenced by subconscious imitative behavior.

This subconscious imitation also manifests artistically in an unexpected form: Memes. At first, Memes appear to be nothing more than simple humorous images, videos, pieces of texts that go viral on the internet. But as a cultural lens of group behavior, memes are deceptively sophisticated and must not be dismissed as trivial at all. There’s a reason why they’ve exploded in popularity in recent years. The density/clarity of cultural and social information stored in something like the very popular “starter pack” memes is significant. In the case of the starter pack memes, it resonates so strongly because we see a subgroup of people who behave in repeatedly similar ways that we know or have seen ourselves. Here’s an example:

Image Source: Instagram

When it comes to imitation, people want to let others know they belong in certain groups. Circles use specific lexicon that catches on within groups. Usage of secret words can deem you an insider. “Genius” or “humor” are ones my LA friends are surely familiar with! Finance folks do the same thing with abbreviations or turns of phrase to suggest that they are insiders: saying 150 bps instead of 1.5%. Crypto folks use abbreviations like “ngmi” to denigrate fiat folks, it stands for “not gonna make it”. Barista Hipsters or guilt-ridden trust-fund kids do the same but can be anti-mimetic by doing the opposite and, thus forming their own mimetic group. For example, “Look how little I care about luxury brands that I wear these unbranded torn clothes instead”. We can’t help but signal versions of who we are or who we aspire to be more like. We are all tending versions of ourselves.

As you climb up the socioeconomic hierarchy in the finance jungle, the watches one wears signal status too. The world of Tag Heuers go to the Rolexes and eventually to Patek Philippes. But the true tycoons at the very top? They wear rubber Casio watches. Why? Everyone already knows who they are and likely an idea of how much money they’ve probably raked in. But the rubber watch is also signalling equally, “I wouldn’t deign to wear flashy fancy watches to highlight my stature.” Reverse snobbery is still signaling to others. Conversely, Cousin Greg, a fan favorite from the show Succession, stumbles into an unfamiliar backdrop. Tom shows Greg a taste of the high life: velvet ropes and bottle service in the VIP section of the nightclub. Greg, an outsider to this world, naively asks if they actually go to a party… then pay thousands of dollars to… in fact, be away from the party?

Consider another excerpt from Alex Danco: “Advertisers understand this principle really well: you’re not trying to convince somebody that they want Bud Light or a Ford F150; you’re telling them they ought to desire membership to a particular peer set, and the way to become a part of that group is to drink Bud Light and drive an F150. It’s why Abercrombie can advertise their clothes with models that aren’t actually wearing any of those clothes; the clothes aren’t the point. Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Search for Lost Time, is all about this phenomenon: how our memory of objects and experiences is powerfully and retroactively shaped by the opinions of people who we aspire to imitate. In the book, Proust’s character is on a literal and metaphorical search to rediscover his initial impressions of experiences as he actually perceived them, before those memories became colored by the mediating influence of others.”

Anyone familiar with the film “The Talented Mr. Ripley” will notice the Girardian archetype quite perfectly. An aspirational Ripley portrayed by Matt Damon becomes fast friends with Dickie Greenleaf (played by Jude Law). He begins to get so enamored by Dickie and his lifestyle that he secretly tries on Dickie’s clothes and impersonates him in the mirror. Eventually, Ripley ends up killing Dickie himself in a fit of rage and assumes Dickie’s identity completely. It was never about the objects; it was always about the other person. Here the seemingly inescapable mimetic violence element of Girard’s theory plays out according to plan too.

So timeless is the imitative behavior around status that during the Roman Empire, there was tremendous social prestige around Gladiators. Now remember, Gladiators were literal prisoners made to fight each other till death…for entertainment. The power and magnetism of this societal adulation was so strong that non-prisoners such as the aucorati (free men) and even occasionally nobility wanted to become Gladiators for the status it conferred upon them. Think about how crazy that is. It is almost never about the object. Kissinger famously said of academia, “the fights were so fierce because the stakes were so small” It’s about the other people who deem it valuable. So, it was never about Davidson. Just as this essay isn’t really about him either. It’s likely me trying to emulate role models of my own!

The problematic nature of who we admire is something Plato thought about a lot. He noted how people usually just go along with “doxa” (popular opinion). Which he believed was full of errors. He believed Athens needed good role models when observing that instead Athenians were overly focused on the rich (Much has changed huh?). Role models change our outlook, ideas, and conduct. “Bad hero’s give glamour to flaws of character”. Plato wanted to give Athens new heroes he called Guardians who comprised virtuous ideals. Although undemocratic, what was core to his thinking was: giving people what they want vs what’s good for them. The Instagram algorithm for example gives you more of what you consume vs what’s good for you. Plato would probably ban Instagram, but Girard may instead say: curate who you follow intelligently and don’t trust what’s simply popular.

Lorenzo de Medici strategically used this critical unique insight in 16th century Florence. He fuelled the Renaissance by understanding the lemming-like behavior of humans. The resurrection of the Ancient Greek ideals was central to the Renaissance. In that, 300BC theory was applied to 16th century reality… Medici used the popularity of Art/Theater to sneak in ancient virtues and ethics into pop culture via his patronage. It wasn’t patronage such that the artist could make whatever they wanted. They had to imbue the art with the “wisdom of the ancients”. For example, Aristotle in his “Poetics” wrote on the importance of tragedy. Aristotle wanted people in Ancient Athens to see tragic works regularly to counter the inclination to judge and moralize too easily. He believed structurally, the protagonist should be “decent, better than average, highborn, prone to small mistakes but not obvious it’s an error and due to an unfortunate chain of events- small mistakes lead to catastrophe. This is to show how good people can end up in terrible situations and to have empathy (De Botton).

As a result, it is perhaps wise to “want” more consciously than we do. Role models who are distant but virtuous. Creating a symmetrical opposite to Nietzche’s line “be careful fighting monsters lest you become one yourself” into: “be careful who you admire, lest you become more like them yourself” If you extrapolate this from the level of the individual to that of society, Dean Kamen’s line “a society gets more of what it celebrates” becomes more colorized.

The propensity towards mimesis and imitation, turbo charged by social media, is not limited to things of trivial nature, but also across all life. In this context, it could mean even larger distortions in human judgement when it comes to the apparent “wisdom of crowds” in the marketplace of ideas.

The popular ‘wisdom of crowds’ argument makes sense when decisions of the crowd are independent of each other. This is particularly important if we accept the premise that our desires and subsequent actions can be prone to imitation. Because when decision making is derivative and we know others’ answers, it becomes problematic. The famous jellybean example shows that if “one asks a large enough number of people to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the averaged answer is likely to be very close to the correct number. More correct than any individual on a repeated basis.” But, as several have noted in response, this assumes averaging the sum of several independent answers.

The reality of the world is not such. When further tests were done, but where people could see or hear their peers’ answers before they themselves answered, the new collective answer was off by around 50%.

The psychological cut can be seen through the Asch Conformity Experiment conducted in 1951 by Solomon Asch. In the experiment, the subject is in a group (who are “in” on the experiment) – the subject is effectively” alone” in the experiment. The group is asked to match the length of a line to different images. The rest of the group purposefully give incorrect answers.

The experiments revealed the degree to which a person's own opinions are influenced by those of groups. Asch found that people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer 33% of times compared to less than 1% in the control group, in order to conform to the rest of the group.”

The historical framing can be that our herd-like nature is embedded in us since hunter gatherer times. If you were the strong independent minded thinker, and the rest of the group ran away because they saw others run away, if you didn’t - you probably didn’t live to opine on the virtues of contrarianism. The utility of following others was life or death. But in modernity, we may not have all the right answers about everything we think we do. And following everyone else doesn’t seem to be where the answers lie. There are many secrets and stones left unturned where consensus has potentially led us astray.

Sometimes the best place to look for these secrets are in the lies everyone tells or things no one believes yet. In an entrepreneurial context, the thought that you will get into a stranger’s car with them or that you’ll stay at a stranger’s private home while they sleep in the next room seemed totally crazy. This would *rationally* have been dismissed by most. But, the insight unlocked idle supply where no one else saw it. On the power of revisionist consensus belief, Princeton professor Robert George wrote: “I sometimes ask students what their position would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.”

It is hard to overstate the importance of human nature because we like to think of ourselves as smart logical civilized people who eventually come to the right answers. But in truth: “We don’t say what we think, we don’t believe what we say, we don’t do what we preach.” We hurt those we love. We sometimes still love those who hurt us. We are riddled with lots of bugs in the Human Operating System as Jim O'Shaughnessy likes to say. So, in a cultural environment that accepts the “wisdom of crowds” type thinking as its primary modality, we should at least be aware of how our proclivity towards imitation can lead to some negative externalities when trusting the crowd or even ourselves. Understanding our own fallibility can provide a healthy balance in that context.

George Soros, one of the most successful hedge fund managers in history credits his theory of reflexivity as the bedrock of his investment philosophy. Reflexivity in its plainest form attempts to look at the relationship between perception and reality. Particularly, how perceptions can change reality and create continuous feedback loops that result in distortions that are not sustainable. This can be used to look at booms/busts of bubbles where fair equilibrium is surpassed on the upside as well as the downside. It runs in total contradiction to the efficient market hypothesis, which assumes all available information is reflected in prices: fair value. Here, the efficient market hypothesis is assuming the wisdom of crowds’ modality of thought, whereas Soros, understanding human nature, believes it can very well turn into the madness of crowds as well.

The Enlightenment’s focus on reason positively changed the world of politics, science, individual freedom and more forever. But if one becomes a slave to rationality, one tends to ignores the inconvenient components of human nature, that as social phenomenon cannot be explained in the rationalist framework of the natural sciences and determinism. Thus, recognizing the frailties and limits of human nature can unlock insights and path currently obscured to us. Whether it is in the scope of imitation or violence and evil… not just in others but in ourselves too.

Soros touches upon the limits of rationality in conversation with fabled market prognosticator, Byron Wien, in the masterful book “Soros on Soros”. On speaking about the fallibility of self, he said, “it implies we need to have some beliefs to guide us through life. We cannot rely on reason alone. Rationality has its uses, but it also has its limitations. If we insist on staying within the limits of reason, we cannot cope with the world in which we live. By contract, a belief in our own fallibility can take us much further. It can guide us through life.” He notes on economic theory not recognizing reflexivity “It cannot be reconciled with the goals of analytical science, which is to provide determinate predictions and explanations.” He adds “I think the social sciences have done violence to their subject matter in their ambition to imitate the natural sciences. It is high time to liberate social phenomena from the straitjacket of natural science. I don’t want to overstate my case, social scientists are just as interested in the pursuit of truth as natural scientists, but they have an opportunity to conjure that is largely denied to the natural scientists. The best way to guard against abuse is by recognizing the possibility. That is what I hoped to achieve by claiming that social science is a false metaphor and insisting my own approach is more like alchemy than science.”

This is certainly one factor that undergirds something like the LTCM crash in 1998 where consensus thought that because Nobel prize geniuses were running an investment fund, they were immune to dangers of excessive leverage. Or how during the housing boom of the mid 2000s, these derivative products were so complex that consensus believed we needed special experts to value them because no one else knew how to. It just so happened that neither did the banks, insurers, nor the rating agencies. Bernie Madoff and Theranos too relied on imitative social proof to dupe the public.

This is the same heterodox point on the rational tradition Peter Thiel reaches, albeit from a different journey and he references it more esoterically in the appropriately titled essay “The Straussian Moment”. He says, “the Enlightenment undertook a major strategic retreat. If the only way to stop people from killing one another about religious questions…involved a world where nobody thought about it too much, then the intellectual cost of ceasing such thought seemed a small price to pay. The question of human nature was abandoned.” Thiel notes how the question of violence, in human nature, is completely whitewashed and ignored by the Enlightenment as if it’s conveniently not a part of our existence. In the same light, Walker, an ex-con cowboy on the TV show Yellowstone, says “People like to think we ain’t animals. Like we’ve evolved into something different. Prison teaches you real quick, we haven’t. You can forget bears, wolves, snakes. We’re the meanest F-ing thing on this planet” .

The theological reference on fallibility could be something like the St. Augustine articulation of the Original Sin doctrine that everyone is born sinful and possesses a proclivity towards it too. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, famous Soviet era dissident who wrote in his The Gulag Archipelago “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained”. Look at some of the horrible atrocities humans have committed in the past. Things that may even have seemed reasonable at that point of time but are extremely unpalatable today. But we shouldn’t simply look at the past but also at what grave errors we are still prone to committing today. Not just around us and in others, but also in ourselves. As Bertrand Russell noted “I would never die for my beliefs…because I might be wrong!”

This lens on human nature is seemingly why Facebook/Twitter, and more broadly today’s cultural tenor get the diagnosis of toxicity on these platforms so wrong. They tend to believe the hate is something fixable. The platforms believe with the right incentives of fact checking: “did you read the article”, flagging harmful content, showing you different opinions to force you to dig deeper, that all will be peaceful once again. The Realpolitik critique would probably say that’s a naively optimistic perspective of society. See things as they are, not as they ought to be. There is no panacea, for if there was, it’s a solution to all evil that exists in the world. (The obvious exception of policy being beyond serious atrocities of inciting violence, child pornography, sexual harassment, or national security etc.)

This realpolitik critique would perhaps posit that Facebook, at its scale, is simply acting as a mirror to society: showing us how screwed up we actually are or can be. Just how far away from fully enlightened/rational. So… we want to break this mirror. Break the mirror, and we will no longer be angry with how “ugly” we really are.

{Nihal Dhar graduated from the University of Southern California in 2018 with a degree in economics and writes on the intersection of global investing and culture}


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