Mimetic Desire in Babies

What can we learn about positive mimesis from children?

“The messages from the mouths of babes are too important to ignore, and too complex to understand without multidisciplinary collaboration. To adapt Girard: Babies hold a secret about the human mind that has been hidden for millennia. They are our double. They have a primordial drive to understand us that advances their development; we have a desire to understand them that propels social science and philosophy. By examining the minds and hearts of children, we illuminate ourselves.”

These are the closing words of an essay by Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, a psychologist who co-directs the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. His essay, “Imitation, Gaze, and Intentions”, can be found in the 2011 volume Mimesis and Science—a book so important I included it in my “Top 10 Reading List” for those interested in learning more about mimetic theory.

I wrote about Dr. Meltzoff’s work extensively in the first chapter of Wanting because I believe it’s critical to understanding mimetic theory in a more rigorous way, but also because—as Meltzoff points out—it is only through interdisciplinary efforts that humanity can unlock the mysterious depths of our existence and the world we inhabit.

At a time when knowledge is becoming more and more specialized, what does that mean for our future?

The Generosity of Babies

Babies are naturally mimetic, as we know. They are able to follow the gaze of their mothers, mimic facial expressions of those “like” themselves (humans; not machines); and engage in complex vocal mirroring by even crying in a way that is modeled off the intonations of their mother’s voice. (This is why a Chinese baby will cry differently than a German baby: Chinese is a highly tonal language, and German is not.)

Dr. Melztoff’s study in February 2020 showed convincingly that babies who are presented with a delicious piece of food (in this case, fruit) would more often than not share it with a stranger who begged for it—even if they were extremely hungry.

In December 2020, Meltzoff’s research team conducted its most important study yet. It not only backed up the initial findings but revealed an extra layer: a child’s ability to override their instinctual desires in acts of generosity.

It’s worth quoting this part of the study (which you can read in full here) at length:

What we did, with the cooperation of parents, was to present infants with three categories of items: their own treasured toy or bottle, delicious fruit, and common object like a block. From the videos, we examined “possessiveness”—whether infants reached leaned on tiptoes toward the items, lunged toward them, or raising both arms as if communicating “it’s mine, give it to me.”

What our analyses revealed is that infants showed significantly more possessive behavior toward their own items than toward the food or the common objects. That is, when you’re a pre-verbal human and you want to express your desire to possess an item held by someone else, it turns out that gesturing toward that item is a great bet.

But here’s the rub. Just as the babies were reaching for their items, the experimenter dropped the items, and himself reached for them. What would infants do in this situation—take possession of their object that they clearly wanted or give it to the stranger that was begging for it? We arranged the situation so that it was easy for the infants to grab the object and retreat to their parent who was sitting behind them.

The data taught us that already by this age, babies have a remarkable ability to override their own desire to possess by giving the stranger the item that he seemed to desire. Sacrificing one’s own wants for the wants of another person.

This kind of behavior has never been observed in our nearest relatives, the chimps. In animals, intense desire for an object cannot be overridden except maybe through fear—for instance, yelling at a dog who has taken a keen interest in a piece of food.

(Above: the experiment—this time using a stuffed animal.)

There is a long history of observing animal conflict, most recently (and most famously) in Konrad Lorenz’s book On Aggression, in which he famously studied geese. Girard studied this book extensively as one of his source materials.

Lorenz found that any time two geese approach one another in an aggressive way, the usual way for the aggression to be discharged is through some third object—for instance, a third geese nearby. This third object provides a redirection of their aggression. Geese simply do not have the capability to renounce and/or override it without the “intervention” of a third thing. (We’ll come back to this later, in a future edition, when we look at the scapegoat mechanism.)

Yet humans have an amazing capability of responding in anti-mimetic ways from a very young age when they see that someone “like” them is in need of something. They are able to override the instincts of selfishness or aggression in order to serve the needs of others.

We could call this freedom or agency—as nascent as this freedom is in the child, she is not at the whim of her wants and needs, even from an early age. This is contrary to the view of the infant as some kind of asocial savage who needs to be inaugurated into civil society by adults.

(Freud even went so far as to imply that there is a physical birth and then a psychological birth at which point the baby is opened up to interpersonal relations. Meltzoff’s previous work shattered that idea as babies are interpersonal from the very first moments of their lives.)

What does all this mean? Many questions are left unanswered.

  • Where did this capacity come from? (In Girardian scholarship—particularly highlighted in the work of Eric Gans—it most likely came from some generative act in the process of hominization.)

  • Do generous children become generous adults? (I argue in Wanting that naturally positive forms of mimetic desire clearly found in children tend to turn into negative forms of mimetic in adults if there is no intentionality behind the formation of their desires.)

  • What degree of freedom or agency are children really exercising in these acts, and what is the evolutionary explanation? (The avoidance of conflict? Could children have built-in antibodies to the scapegoat mechanism, which only works effectively in so-called civilized societies among intelligent adults with more sophisticated notions of ‘justice’ and the ability to absolve themselves from their own crimes?)

And there are more.

The most fascinating part of Dr. Meltzoff’s new study is the answer that Melztoff gives on Good Morning America when he is asked what parents or adults can do to foster and cultivate continued generosity from children:

Model it, he basically says. In your interactions with the child—and in your interactions with others—model a spirit of generosity. Because the desire to be generous is mimetic, too.

(Side note: I’m currently talking to foundations, churches, and non-profits that are started to realize the power of mimesis in their fundraising approaches, and I think the spirit of generosity is one that can be intentionally unlocked—not just prayed for.)

In short, we are models for the generous souls that our children and students will eventually grow into—or not. While they may possess some natural tendencies toward altruism, the power of mimetic desire eventually takes over and shapes the development and growth of that generosity.

If there is no model, the same spirit that led them to be generous as a kid can lead to ever-more ingenious forms of rivalry in adulthood when the Other-Interest of generosity turns into the Other-Interest of measurement and competition.

Of course, all of this is predicated on the spirit of generosity that we ourselves possess. We can’t give what we don’t have, and we can’t generate it out of thin air.

We, too, need a model. Who is yours?