Monday, October 4, 2021


The good, the bad, the mimetic.

Positive Mimesis

Roller suitcases—which are nearly ubiquitous today—did not become popular until the 1990’s when a Northwest Airlines pilot named Robert Plath invented the version with a collapsible handle and two wheels. A wheeled trunk had been invented as early as 1887, and a wheeled suitcase had already been invented in 1972—but it had to be pulled along with a leather strap, and it wasn’t a good look. In his book Narrative Economics, Robert J. Schiller explains how the “narrative” shaped widespread market adoption. He writes (emphasis mine to highlight the mimetic language):

“I never understood why the wheeled suitcase idea wasn’t absolutely contagious. My best guess is that, with Plath’s invention, glamour overcame the sense that wheels on a suitcase looked ridiculous… The epidemic was fueled when flight crews adopted the Rollaboards, and passengers saw these glamorous-looking people walking through airports, pulling their Rollaboards effortlessly behind them. By 1993, the ads for Rollaboards took advantage of this publicity, citing them as the ‘first choice of aircrews worldwide.’ Maybe that is all it took to make a good idea, over a hundred years old, suddenly contagious.”

In other words, models of desire.

Negative Mimesis

During times of heightened uncertainty, mimesis increases as players fall back on mimicking. We can think of mimesis as part of a fight or flight response: when there is increased confusion about what the right course of action is, organizations resort to copying others in order to not fall behind or make a mistake. It’s a form of risk-aversion. In their landmark paper, The Iron Cage Revisited, Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell explore the effects of mimesis within organizations.  “What makes organizations so similar?” they write. “We contend that the engine of rationalization and bureaucratization has moved from the competitive marketplace to the state and the professions. Once a set of organizations emerges as a field, a paradox arises: rational actors make their organizations increasingly similar as they try to change them. We describe three isomorphic processes–coercive, mimetic, and normative–leading to this outcome.” The mimetic process, they found, occurs most frequently during times of peak uncertainty. So when the going gets tough, it’s time to seriously ask yourself: am I playing not to lose? As we all know, that’s a recipe for losing.


“I believe that in intense conflict, far from becoming sharper, differences melt away.”  —René Girard


Have a beautiful week.

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