The Desert Island Test
a thought experiment in mimetic desire + the nebulous nature of wants
Good thought experiments are rare.
A couple years ago, as I was trawling through the PG archives for the first time, I found a post called The Island Test. In it, Paul proposed a test that was supposed to help you discover what you’re addicted to. It involved a rather simple process, easily summarized as follows:
Imagine you’re visiting a new house, on an island that has no shops or courier service.
Make a list of things (other than the bare necessities) you would make sure to take with you.
That list is the list of stuff you’re addicted to.
If it feels like a particularly insipid thought experiment, you’re right, it kinda is. At least for me, the exercise didn't surface the stuff that was really addicting. Heck, Paul (using this test on himself) ends up concluding that he’s addicted to, um…notebooks and earplugs. How decadently sinful.
And two years later, I’m convinced that really is a terrible test.
For one, it doesn’t perform any better than the far simpler question “What are you addicted to?”. Mostly because the simpler question is just more direct, and surfaces most of the real answers pretty well on it’s own. And I, for one, doubt that addictions are the subtle, hazy things that they’re made out to be. Most people can tell when the dependency gets strong enough, so an honest answer to the direct query is usually all it takes.
Sure, sometimes the most pernicious addictions blend into the background of your life, becoming difficult to tease out through mere introspective questioning. This sort of overlooked dependency is what the question is *supposed* to help with, but it…doesn’t.
Because background details are, by definition, the things that are taken for granted. Not the stuff you’d consciously think of. Who would add “nail-biting” to a travel list?
And even if people are really good at lying to themselves, the setting in this test doesn’t change that. If anything, it encourages it. Because the trip to the island acts almost exactly the way the new year does, providing the possibility of a fresh start, new choices, a Schelling point for self-transformation. A chance to leave behind the stuff you normally can’t live without. And so all it ends up doing is showing you what you want, or what you want to want. Not what you desperately need and depend on.
This isn’t critique for critique’s sake though. I mention this particularly disappointing essay not to disparage it, but to repurpose the idea it started out with. Rejoice, for sometimes even the meh-est of ideas can be inspiration for even meh-er newsletter posts.
In this case, into a way to counter that most devious driver of behaviour: mimetic desire. A way to answer the eternal question: what is it you *really* want?
But first, a short refresher on Girard.
If you’ve spent enough time on a particular part of the internet, you’ve probably heard enough about this guy. About how he thinks humans learn to desire things by imitating other people, creating oppurtunities for largely pointless competition and intense conflict amongst the closest of peers. You’ve heard it all before, perhaps to the point where he really does seem just a tad overrated.
After all, what’s so new about his big idea anyway? Noticing that people want things because other people want things is hardly a novel idea1. Where Girard differs is in taking it to delightful extremes. As befits all ambitious philosophers, he attempts to explain everything he possibly can through this lens of mimesis.
Why do people adopt desires that are clearly orthogonal to their flourishing? Why do professionals vie to outdo each other over ultimately meaningless metrics? How did “keeping up with the Joneses?” become a thing? What creates the narcissism of small differences? Girard claims to have the answer.
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind.”
At first glance, this seems obviously wrong. There are things we're born wanting, even without seeing someone else choose them. Is it not natural to want food that simply tastes better? That doesn't seem like a very mimetically influenced desire.
But what if we lived in an environment that glorified asceticism? Where “delicious” was a slur, seasoning was illegal, and chefs were branded as social outcasts. Would our "natural preferences" change to reflect this? Would nurture trump nature and transform our wants, like it so often does? Going so far as to override our physiological predilections. Who knows?
But where even his critics agree is that a fairly large majority or human desires are based on imitation. How could it not be? Shared culture is what gave us the pyramids, astrology and Michael Jackson. It’s definitely powerful enough to influence us in a myriad of weird yet compelling ways. The hype around “mirror neurons” only added further credence to Girard’s arguments.
Which brings me to the test.
It's a fairly simple one, combining both Paul’s island test and the classic “What do you think you’d need to survive on a desert island?” question into a two-step process:
Imagine you’re marooned on an island.
Make an exhaustive list of everything you wish you could have with you.
You can wish for absolutely anything, except people and intangibles, of course. The bare essentials (food, water, electricity, etc.) are provided by…um, the local colony of technologically advanced bonobos. Or Santa. It doesn’t really matter, just don’t worry about the bare necessities.
You can pick the type of house (or many houses, as long as you’re fine with maintaining them yourself), clothes, and any variety of consumer goods. No internet, but you can get an annual full-archive download if you ask nicely. Add them all onto the list, and make it as long as you’d like. Go crazy, your Pinterest boards are the limit.
How is this whole set-up supposed to work? It gets rid of what’s supposed to be the root of memetic desire: other people. And with that, all the status games that come with living in a society hopefully fade away too.
I say “hopefully”, because some of them are really persistent bastards. It might take some fairly intense imagining before the straight-A grad student realises he never really wanted his PhD. Or before you decide you never really cared about writing that blog, it just seemed like an impressive thing to do.
But once that’s done, you’ll have a list that’s formed by pure intrinsic desire, none of those distracting mimetic forces. Does it look exactly like the list of things you wished for when you were 12 years old? No? Just me then.
You can now spend the rest of your life chasing the things on that list, because is it’s far more likely that you’ll actually achieve them, as opposed to ticking items of the unending list of “envy desires”. And this time, you’ll actually enjoy them once you’ve got them, because they’re what you *really* want.
Rather inconveniently, no man is an island.
And so this test is kinda dumb too.
For one, it has the same weakness that all philosophical thought experiments do: they’re thought experiments. And rather ridiculous ones at that. If physicists ask you to imagine a spherical cow, philosophers ask for a frictionless rail, a perfect utility function, and an unstoppable force crashing into five perfectly substitutable humans.
More annoyingly, it won’t solve your existential angst. If anything, it makes it all the more salient by reminding you that in the real world, there’s no end to this game of wanting. And if an essay can’t get rid of the hole in your heart, what on earth is the point of reading it?
Sure, this particular set-up helps you clear your lens of externally mediated desire by getting rid of everyone that might influence your choices. That’s all well and good, and maybe it gets some people to see that Yeezys are just another ugly shoe, which is a clear win. But you also…have no people, which would kinda suck. Like it or not, they are a locus of meaning you just can’t ignore. Not unless you choose an actual desert island.
You see, the really tricky thing isn’t that our desires are mimetic, it’s that they’re also embedded into social contexts. Like the saying goes, we live in a society. And living here involves buying into what I call the “minimum necessary mimesis”. Dipping into the societal desire pool just enough to stay in touch with the broader collective.
The PhD that seems so hollow on the desert island might just be what you need to get to work with the team you really want. Sure, it’s a silly piece of paper that you sacrifice half a decade to get, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
So even if this isn’t a panacea, I still find it a useful exercise. Especially if you can use it to think deeply about what you’re chasing if there was nobody around to watch you. Knowing what things you want is pretty useful, even if how you get them involves letting yourself be taken up into the world’s collective desire nexus.
And despite the fact that most of our meaning comes from being around people, it was interesting to realize that things really did matter. Even I, an austere soul if there ever was one, would much prefer a massive two-storied, library-containing, zipline-equipped, beachside cottagecore mansion to like, a hut or something. It’s just better to have things that you like, y’know?
And so I encourage you to play around with it.
You can experiment with adding in a bunch of different factors and seeing what changes. For example, you can add in a partner or significant other, and see how your wants transform. From there, you can move onto adding family, close friends, professional and acquaintances, in that order. How does the list change with each addition? When does it cross over to “this=isnot-what-I-really-want” territory?
Maybe try imagining different kinds of weather and see how they affect your desires. Different topography and scenery too, if that makes a difference.
Age is an especially interesting parameter. While you can’t really imagine what you’d want at different ages, it’s still fun to try. Personally, the only change in desires that I can imagine is like, a dishwasher or something. Unless I get a bit more paranoid about it, and try to account for physical degradation: a weaker body and slowing mind. Would a comfortable mattress make it into the top quartile of my list?
If you want to get really neurotic, try working with a variety of lifespan limits. What would change if I had, say, 10 years of life left vs. 50. What about a mere two years?
What’s that? This seems like just another reminder to “think deeply about what you want, and stay the course”? Yes, of course it is. Here’s another, and another. We’re going to need as many as we can get if we plan to swim against the current of mimetic impulse. Better men than us have been swept along by that relentless river.
Yes, he does have some interesting stuff to say about scapegoating and conflict, but the concept of mimetic desire itself is just giving a handy name to a fairly old and common observation. A useful addition, but not ground-breaking.