An Introduction to Mimetic Theory





I compiled the following documentary film on the origin of cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 







Dirk Draulans, read Girard!

Dirk DraulansDirk Draulans, biologist and science journalist for Belgian Knack magazine, wrote an interesting article on the question of violence in human life (Violence is deeply rooted in us – The biology of terror; PDF: Het geweld zit diep in ons – De biologie van terreur). He drew from several recent findings concerning the ongoing struggle with violence between and within human communities since prehistoric times. Perhaps not surprisingly, he came across questions as well as insights that are at the core of René Girard’s mimetic theory and its explanation of human culture. So I can only advice Draulans to read the work of René Girard and other scholars of mimetic theory. As I’ll try to show, it may resolve some of the ambiguities and dilemmas he touches upon in his article. I’ve translated parts of the article from Dutch, emphasizing certain sentences, before commenting from a Girardian point of view.

First of all, Draulans points to the importance of imitation or mimesis in the origin and maintenance of human culture:

Our culture is not in our genes, but is transmitted by copying and learning behavior.

Island of Wild ChildrenIn this context Draulans refers to a thought experiment conducted by scientists who specialize in the emergence of culture. More specifically, he refers to an article in New Scientist, Island of wild children: Would they learn to be human? (Christopher Kemp, June 3, 2015) that contains the experiment:

100 babies. No adults. One island. Without language, culture or tools, what would they become and how would their own children evolve?

Or, as Draulans puts it:

This led to the key question whether we humans are born violent.

Here’s how Draulans continues:

Protective ButtressingQuite a few scientists who participated in the thought experiment assumed that there soon would be tensions within the group, especially when food is scarce. Indeed, biologically speaking, violence is deeply rooted in us. Chimpanzees, who are models for the ape-men who were our ancestors, are ‘naturally’ violent. The world of chimpanzees is organized around the members of their own group, and neighboring groups are by definition enemies to be fought. Last year, Biological Reviews published an analysis of the skulls of australopithecines, chimpanzee-like ancestors of man who lived several million years ago. The results show that their hands were so evolved that they could easily make fists, not only for handling equipment but also to commit violence. Some skulls, especially of men, were hardened to better absorb punches. Yet in the course of our evolution we gradually became more gentle. We had to, if we wanted to survive in a world with ever more people, many of them we didn’t know. […] An average person would find groups of 150 people or more difficult to handle, for he wouldn’t know everyone personally.


7000 Year Old Mass Grave GermanyAlthough culture and morality became very powerful in the course of our history, they could never prevent the resurgence of extreme violence. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study of a 7,000 year old mass grave in Germany. It showed that dozens of people, including children, were brutally maimed and killed. It is not the only mass grave from that period. The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another, without any further information about the groups in question.

A Talent for FriendshipScientists are struggling with the difficult balance between our propensity to violence on the one hand and our ability to cooperate on the other. This is shown by two books published last year. In A Talent for Friendship an American ethnographer develops the idea that so-called primitive tribes are not as violent as we were led to believe for a long time. On the contrary, they would have had systems to learn to accept strangers as friends […]. They would even have had ‘ritual battlefields’ to turn hostility into friendship. In another book, Virtuous Violence (CLICK HERE FOR A PRESENTATION IN SLIDES), both an American anthropologist and psychologist defend the surprising statement that violence often is not the result of a diminished moral sense, but rather the reverse: people sometimes use violence because they believe that it’s the best thing to do. They often feel ‘morally obliged’ to be violent.Virtuous Violence


‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern. It should be possible with our culture, though. But unfortunately it is not always as powerful as it should be.

Pimu Alpha Male Chimpanzee killed by fellow chimps Mahala Park Tanzania 2011In a video compilation I made (on the origin of cultures) as an introduction to mimetic theory (click here), anthropologist David Watts filmed an event that normally doesn’t happen within groups of chimpanzees. True, chimpanzees often collectively inflict extreme violence on individual members of an outside community, but they would not do this to a member of their own community. And yet, that’s what Watts witnessed. It happened in the largest group that was ever observed in the wild, with over a 150 chimpanzees. Indeed, as Draulans writes, groups of 150 people or more become difficult to handle, and people no longer know each member of the group well. It is no surprise that chimpanzees experience similar problems in such a large group: tensions rise, and feelings of empathy are not as strong for every member.

What Draulans only partly emphasizes in his article is the fact that violent tensions within and between groups of primates may also occur when ‘survival’ (of the individual or of the group as a ‘species’) is not exactly the issue. In groups of chimpanzees, males constantly vie for dominance and form frequently changing alliances in order to move up the hierarchy. This has to do with an increased mimetic ability. In many circumstances a group benefits from mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as survival and other skills are more easily passed on from one member of the group to others, but in the context of mutually imitated desires the mimetic ability often leads to violent conflict. Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (for an example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Collective violence of chimpanzees against individual members of an outside community thus also has a social function: it reunites normally competing males of the same group against a common enemy. This behavior forms the basis for the scapegoat mechanism in (primitive) human communities as it is described by René Girard.

It should come as no surprise that the rare event of collective violence against a member of one’s own group precisely occurred in an exceptional group of chimpanzees with over 150 members. Indeed: the bigger the group, the bigger the tensions, and the more individual members may fall outside ‘circles of empathy’, thus running the chance of becoming the victim of a ‘reuniting collective violence’. According to Girard, events of collective violence, releasing tensions within one’s own group, would have happened more in primitive human communities (as those became larger and as humans have even more mimetic ability and thus potentially destructive mimetic desires than other primates). This, again according to Girard, eventually resulted in rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture: ritual sacrifices (for more on Girard’s account on the origin of religion and ‘the sacred’, click here). These rituals try to distinguish so-called ‘good’, ‘justified’ or ‘regenerating’ violence from ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ violence. For instance, in the AndesTinku of Bolivia descendants of the Inca stage a festival called Tinku to receive a good harvest from ‘the mountain spirits’ (this is also shown in the video compilation, on the origin of cultures – click here for more). Almost every year someone dies during this ritual battle, that nevertheless still often ends in an embrace of the fighters. Indeed, this ritual sacrifice of human blood wants to turn potential destructive enmity over scarcity of food into the maintenance of peace because of a good harvest. Honoring the spirits in maintaining certain taboos and sacrifices prevents their wrath (perceived as some sort of supernatural punishment in the contagious disease of destructive violence). A recent study in Science (click here pdf) claims that beliefs like these were necessary to make societies socially and politically more complex: indeed, the establishment of periodic ritual sacrifices would release tensions in a more controlled, structured way.

As said, all these observations from mimetic theory may resolve some of the dilemmas in the article of Dirk Draulans as well as nuance some of his statements. Summarized:

1) Humans are not ‘naturally violent’. We don’t automatically feel nor need to suppress the urge to attack others. What is the case is that we are ‘naturally mimetic’ and that mimetic tendencies in the context of desire might lead to violent conflict (read also pdf The Two Sides of Mimesis by Vittorio Gallese). As Draulans observes, commenting on the study of a prehistoric mass grave:

The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another…

Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (again for the aforementioned example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Humans sometimes even suppress instinctual needs and desires because of mimetically enhanced ambitions. Germany, for instance, entered the first world war as one of the most powerful nations in the world. It had no shortage of consumer products, let alone of basic food supplies and water. It mainly wanted to express its supremacy. Of course, tragically, Germany came out of the war as a broken nation (for more, click here). On an individual level, things like anorexia would not be possible if humans were mainly guided by their ‘natural needs’. Moreover, a recent study once again reveals what happens when mimetic desire is not kept in check by certain beliefs (“I have to accept my social position because of karma”) or taboos (“I cannot question the authority of my king because god will punish me if I do so”). The article of this study, in Nature (October 15, 2015), Conspicuous wealth undermines cooperation, concludes:

Visibility of WealthWealth inequality and wealth visibility can both potentially affect levels of cooperation in a society and overall levels of economic success. Akihiro Nishi et al. use an online game to test how the two factors interact. Surprisingly, wealth inequality by itself did not damage cooperation or overall wealth as long as players do not know about the wealth of others. But when players’ wealth was visible to others, inequality had a detrimental effect.

2) Human culture (and morality – Draulans seems to use this term as a synonym) arises both as an attempt to suppress violence and as an attempt to justify so-called ‘necessary’ violence. Draulans refers to the ambiguity of ‘ritual battlefields’, which is in itself a way out of the dilemma of ‘cooperation vs violence’. Following René Girard and mimetic theory, basic cultural religious institutions such as ritual (sacrifices) allow for a fundamental distinction between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence and provide individual members of human communities with the collective means to justify the violence they inflict on others. This justification is part of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. As it provides ‘distinctions’, ‘definitions’ and ‘(psychological and social) identity’ against the threat of undifferentiated, ‘contagious’ violence, the scapegoat mechanism also forms the basis of human culture according to Girard. It might shed more light on this quote by Draulans:

‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern.

René Girard portraitI guess ‘reason’ alone doesn’t make us human. There are ‘matters of the heart’ too, guiding us to use our brains not to build weapons of mass destruction but to build ‘bridges of solidarity’…

Anyway, Dirk, read René Girard!

Highly recommended:

How We Became Human – Mimetic Theory and the Science of Evolutionary Origins

How We Became Human.jpg

Dag gedichtendag

Vroeger schreef ik ook wel eens een gedicht. Ter gelegenheid van gedichtendag heb ik mijn poëtische aspiraties even uit de kist gehaald. Ze blijken nog altijd springlevend van naïviteit, overdreven dramatiek, vaak uitgemolken clichés, ongegronde Sehnsucht en teen angst. Af en toe getuigen ze ook van een toevallig begenadigd moment, of van ongeremde experimenteerdrift. En dan worden ze toch nog een beetje interessant. Wat voorligt zijn enkele van de gedichten die door anderen goed genoeg bevonden werden om het tot laureaat van een of andere poëzieprijs te schoppen, voorgedragen te worden, of in een gelegenheidsuitgave opgenomen te worden. Ik verzamel ze nu hier, voor wat ze ook maar waard zijn. Misschien is er een toevallige lezer die ze wel kan smaken.



portret (sam dillemans)platonische liefde van een half uur en enkele minuten

jij kijkt naar mij
en ik naar jou.

of ik mijn ogen afwenden zou?
“mooi ben jij”

was het antwoord
van mijn ogen-blik.

en geen mens die hoort:
“ja, dat weet ik.”



as sweet as it gets (michaël borremans)gehaikud

druppels pletsen o-
pen op het modderpad, maar
ik schrijf nog niet dood.


Les Lyriek

muisje is in de tas
steunend op de vloer
huisje is in de klas

kreunend op de loer
staat hij naast het geknabbelde gaatje

nu spits een neusje wacht op het startsein
staat hij naast het bebabbelde paadje

nu flits een keusje wacht op het geweest-zijnsleeper (michaël borremans)

raas zoeft hij
kaas, proeft hij

de oversteek is gewaagd

de overwinning smaakt zoet
de kwajongensstreek is gevraagd

de trilling raakt bloed

toen gelach, tongen, gezangen, “naar huis” weerklonk
want de les was gegeven
toen zag de jongen, gevangen, een muis die al stonk
nodig voor de les Leven


vera (jan vanriet)uitgesproken

de telefoon rinkelt

jij weer, zeg ik

ja, zeg jij

je stem stokt
ik slik

nog de telefoon spreekt:



het warme weer
past niet bij dit kil gemoed,the lovers (rené magritte)
de stralen van de zon
niet bij de leegte
van “geen wolkje aan de lucht”.

zo schijnt het.

maar een mens,
hij brandt een winter
slechts moeizaam op.


om (jou) te vergeten

mijn hand is gegroefd
van allerlei kwalen

unicorn (michaël borremans)
die ik niet bedwong.
zij kruisen in schets
schrijfsels en papier
als krassen van raven
lachend om te mooie lucht.
‘t smaakt mij bitter, wrang
en gewoon: ‘k drink reeds lang,
zo wil het gerucht.
geen gerecht wil het staven,
nee, geen twijfels hier.
oordeel “scherp niet flets”
dat ik niet genoeg wrong

om jou te verdwalen:
ja, ik ben diep bedroefd.


te Val

over de val
glijdend van euvelle blanc seing (rené magritte)
vallen in een dal

waar trappelend overeind gekomen
reeds wegzinkt in een moeras van bomen

in de strik
van een boom
gedraaid in struiken verstrikt

en schichtig voort-spartelend al loom
sluipt de slaap voor angstige blik:

de vogel vliegt
nooit meer nu
de slang haar prooi wiegt.



mijn ware ik: wie ik wil zijn

schets van een spiegel
rand van een scherf
gebroken in splinters
maar het staat en staart
paysage jaune (constant permeke)ik wil bloeden
ik wil kerven
ik wil voelen
leven lopen
maar het staat en staart,
een overkant van wijd rivieren,
rijtlijn van een horizon;
papier tussen hemel en aarde


ware ik wie ik wil zijn
ik was dichter al ongeschreven

Mimetic Food Habits

Paul RozinIt would be very interesting to create an intensified dialogue between Paul Rozin‘s research on the acquisition of likes and dislikes for foods and René Girard’s mimetic theory. Although some scholars already made some connections between the two (for instance in Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue, ed. by Darra Goldstein & Kathrin Merkle, Council of Europe Publication, 2005), much promising work remains to be done.

bugpartywormeatingAmong other things, biology and psychology professor Paul Rozin conducted a research with children from 16 months to five years of age. This resulted in a paper first published in Appetite (7: 141-151; June 1986), The Child’s Conception of Food: Differentiation of Categories of Rejected Substances in the 16 Months to 5 Year Age Range (click for pdf). The abstract from the article:

Children (N = 54) ranging in age from one year four months to five years were offered over 30 items to eat. The items included normal adult foods and exemplars of different adult rejection categories: disgust (e.g. grasshopper, hair), danger (liquid dish soap), inappropriate (e.g. paper, leaf) and unacceptable combinations (e.g. ketchup and cookie). We report a high to moderate level of acceptance (item put into mouth) of substances from all of these categories in the youngest children. Acceptance of disgusting and dangerous substances decreases with increasing age, while acceptance of inappropriate substances remains at moderate levels across the age range studied. Although the youngest children accepted more disgust items, the majority rejected most of the disgust choices. Almost all children at all ages tested accept combinations of foods which, although individually accepted by adults, are rejected in combination. No significant differences were observed between ‘normal’ children and those with a history of toxin ingestion, although there was a tendency of ingesters to accept more inedible items. In general, the results suggest that a major feature of the development of food selection is learning what not to eat.

disgust“A major feature of the development of food selection is learning what not to eat.” In other words, disgust is not just a biological thing, a matter of nature. It is a cultural thing too, a matter of nurture. In yet other words, a huge part of our development concerning likes and dislikes of food lies in the imitation of others. If disgust is a matter of nurture it is also a matter of mimesis. Powerful social models have the potential to increase or decrease the disgust for certain foods. For instance, the disgust for organ meat is decreasing since it is increasingly perceived as food served to the beau monde in fancy restaurants. Organ meat thus becomes an object of mimetic desire, while at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it used to be something undesirable for the rich as it was “meat for the poor”.

Further considerations by Paul Rozin on the origin of disgust as a specifically human trait include the possibility that disgust arose around things that were (considered to be) contagious. Which brings us back to René Girard, whose mimetic theory could explain why things that are not actually contaminating on a purely biological, “natural” level are indeed considered disgusting to the extent that they were once associated with “contaminating” violence (on the “cultural” level).

Well, let’s explore!


The Gospel in Star Wars

1. The Myth of the Hero’s Journey in Star Wars

Much has been written about the mythological nature of the Star Wars movie saga. Indeed its creator, George Lucas, is heavily influenced by the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell even became a mentor to Lucas, helping him to create this new mythology for the blockbuster and pop culture audience. Bill Moyers interviewed Lucas about the mythology of Star Wars:

Joseph Campbell became famous for his concept of “the hero’s journey”, one of the main patterns inJoseph Campbell George Lucas Meme mythology, observable in stories throughout the world and recaptured by George Lucas. An exhibition on Star Wars at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney focused on this theme. Here is some explanation from the teachers notes to this exhibition (click here – pdf):

Joseph Campbell, one of the world’s foremost students and scholars of mythology, studied thousands of myths from around the world and discovered that the majority of them shared many common characteristics. In fact, he saw all the stories as variations of one overall tale, which he named the ‘monomyth’. The subject of the hero is no exception. While the heroes of various cultures may be defined as heroic for different reasons, nearly each one fits the stages of the hero journey as developed by Campbell.

According to Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949:245–246) we can summarize the hero’s journey into three main stages.


‘The mythological hero, setting forth from his common day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion).’

The Hero's Journey 1Initiation

‘Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again — if the powers have remained unfriendly to him — his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).’

The Hero's Journey 3Return

‘The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).’

The Hero's Journey 5Other researchers and scholars have made similar observations regarding this universal mythological and archaic cultural pattern. The pinnacle of the initiation stage is always the “death and rebirth” or, in other words, the “sacrifice and resurrection” of the hero (or heroine). According to Campbell and others, the hero “has to die to his old self” through a supreme (series of) ordeal(s) and return as someone who has the skills to renew life, prosperity, order and peace for his community. It is no coincidence that initiation rituals take the same pattern. In short, archaic cultures defend the idea that a sacrifice (of a hero or his enemy, of a beast or a monster) is necessary to save communities from potentially or ongoing destructive crises. Already James Frazer in his classic study The Golden Bough (click here – pdf) described the necessity of periodic sacrifices as an essential belief underlying myths and rituals throughout the world. The creatures that are sacrificed or sacrifice themselves turn out to be somewhat ambiguous: sometimes they are presented as “bad” as they are considered responsible for all kinds of evil; sometimes they are presented as “good” as their death will save the community; often they are presented as both bad (“monsters” while alive) and good (“saviors” when dead or cast out).

Together with scholars like Frazer, René Girard observes that the above mentioned mythological pattern shows up in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospels as well, especially in the story of Jesus Christ’s Passion. However, unlike Frazer, Campbell and the like, Girard does not believe that the story of Christ’s Passion is “just one more myth”. The structural pattern might be the same, but the content of this story’s message is very different. The Gospels do not justify the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. They show how this victim is innocent of the charges put against it. They reveal Jesus as a scapegoat in the way this word is understood nowadays: as someone who is accused of things he is not responsible for. Eventually, the Gospels thus fundamentally question the necessity of violence to build peace and order. From the perspective of the Gospels, there is no “good” vs. “bad” violence, nor “justified” vs. “unjustified” sacrifices. Violence in itself is considered “evil”, even “satanic”.

In light of these considerations, it is interesting to once again take a look at Star Wars and ask the question whether this saga is purely mythical or if it also contains some of the criticisms on myth by the Gospels. As it turns out, Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, seems the key to answer this question.

2. The Tragedy of a Violent Cycle in Star Wars & The Gospel’s Alternative

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reveal a cycle of events that shows up again and again in the history of mankind. In a first stage, on a psychological level, humans always reinforce each other’s anxious desire and greed for things like prestige, riches, honor and power. From this comes competition, rivalry and violence, resulting in a second stage: a social crisis. The third stage, the political solution to this crisis, is usually found in the expulsion or destruction of a common enemy or victim – an individual or a group –, which restores order, peace and unity within a human community. The leaders of the newly found order justify that sacrifice as well as their own leadership by presenting the sacrificed victims as creatures who had to die in order to prevent further disorder. The recollection of this sacrifice results in a fourth, cultural stage: (sacrificial) rituals and mythological stories gratefully reenact or retell the events that kept (and still keep) the community together, while all sorts of taboos remind the community of the dangers of certain objects and actions associated with crisis situations. Of course this whole cycle of events starts again when a mutually reinforced desire for things like power resurfaces: as those in power increasingly fear they might lose their status, they more anxiously will hold on to it, thus making their status more desirable for others and thus (tragically and ironically) reinforcing the rivalry they wanted to prevent…

The principle of disorder coming from a rivalry based on mutually reinforced desires for things like power, as well as the principle of order coming from the elimination of those who are presented as mainly responsible for that disorder, is personified as “Satan” in the Gospels. Satan is the “prince of this world”, the personification of the murders and the lies people in power use to solidify and justify their position. “The kings of this world” indeed often refer to all kinds of possible threats in order to present themselves as “saviors” of their community, providing safety and security. The tragic and ironic truth, of course, is that they can only secure their own position for as long as their citizens don’t feel safe but fear those possible threats.

Palpatine and Julius CaesarThe Star Wars saga reveals the satanic cycle in its own way. Senator Palpatine is the politician who takes advantage of political and social turmoil in the Galactic Republic to eventually gain absolute power. He first becomes Chancellor and then, finally, Emperor of the newly found Galactic Empire. In this respect Star Wars is reminiscent of what happened to the Roman Empire with the arrival of Julius Caesar. Both Senator Palpatine and Julius Caesar were given extended rule and power for the sake of the safety of their respective Republic, in the midst of civil wars. However, they both stayed in their position much longer than they were supposed to be, their dictatorship eventually destroying the democracy they were supposed to protect. Moreover, they both were involved in the wars that threatened the stability of their Republic. Senator Palpatine even secretly organized the political turmoil and he provoked the wars in the Galactic Republic. That way he could present himself as the “savior” who was desperately needed. This trick was also used by Syrian dictator Assad (and other dictators in the Middle East, for that matter) when he released Islamist extremists from prison so they could join the rebels who fought against his rule – watch the following clip from 00:50-01:04:

“Extremists from Syria and around the region start traveling to join the rebels. Assad actually encourages this by releasing Jihadist extremists to tinge the rebellion with extremism, make it harder for foreigners to back them.”

Palpatine is able to sell the illusion that he is the one who can bring peace to the Galaxy. Of course he will, ironically, violently suppress every possible “enemy” or threat, thereby feeding the rebellion he is trying to prevent. Once hailed as a savior Palpatine becomes the evil Emperor who needs to be sacrificed himself.

In short, in Star Wars the first stage of the satanic cycle is represented in Palpatine’s reinforced desire for power. This eventually results in the social crisis of the second stage. Then comes the third stage of provisional peace, based on the sacrifice of Palpatine’s and his Empire’s so-called enemies. The cultural order of the fourth stage is only briefly kept. Palpatine’s position almost immediately becomes the object of the ambitions and desires of others.

Palpatine turns out to be Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord. The so-called “evil” order of the Sith is the age-old enemy of the so-called “good” order of the Jedi-knights. However, as Episode III of the Star Wars saga makes clear, the line between good and evil cannot be so easily drawn.

Anakin Skywalker is a young Jedi apprentice who gradually becomes a puppet of the seemingly inevitable “satanic” cycle of events. In a first psychological stage Anakin becomes the victim of fear (of rejection), jealousy, pride, anger, hate and greed. In other words, he suffers from those characteristics which the Christian tradition has identified as “cardinal sins”. Master Yoda, head of the Jedi Council, warns Anakin against the dark forces of fear (from script number 77):

YODA: Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.

ANAKIN: I won’t let these visions come true, Master Yoda.

YODA: Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.

ANAKIN: What must I do, Master Yoda?

YODA: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

Of course this is rather a Buddhist way of handling things (as, in Buddhism, attachment is seen as the source of suffering and “nirvana” is the state of bliss where one is free of suffering and therefore of attachments). But Yoda’s warning against jealousy also refers to the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain gets an advice from “the Lord” when Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:6-7):

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain, feeling rejected, nevertheless ends up killing his brother. The warnings of Yoda too go in vain. Anakin rather takes advice of Chancellor Palpatine, “Darth Sidious”, who – like the (“hidious, hissing”) snake in the Genesis story of the Fall – feeds Anakin’s feelings of jealousy, greed and resentment (from script number 88 & 118):

ANAKIN: You wanted to see me, Chancellor.

PALPATINE: Yes, Anakin! Come closer. I have good news. Our Clone Intelligence Units have discovered the location of General Grievous. He is hiding in the Utapau system.

ANAKIN: At last, we’ll be able to capture that monster and end this war.

PALPATINE: I would worry about the collective wisdom of the Council if they didn’t select you for this assignment. You are the best choice by far… but, they can’t always be trusted to do the right thing.

* * *

ANAKIN: Chancellor, we have just received a report from Master Kenobi. He has engaged General Grievous.

PALPATINE: We can only hope that Master Kenobi is up to the challenge.

ANAKIN: I should be there with him.

PALPATINE: It is upsetting to me to see that the Council doesn’t seem to fully appreciate your talents. Don’t you wonder why they won’t make you a Jedi Master?

ANAKIN: I wish I knew. More and more I get the feeling that I am being excluded from the Council. I know there are things about the Force that they are not telling me.

PALPATINE: They don’t trust you, Anakin. They see your future. They know your power will be too strong to control. Anakin, you must break through the fog of lies the Jedi have created around you. Let me help you to know the subtleties of the Force.

Cain and AbelIn the end, Anakin, like Cain, also wants to kill his “brother”, his mentor Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (from script number 214):

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, My Master. I wish it were otherwise.

ANAKIN jumps and flips onto OBI-WAN’s platform. The fighting continues again until OBI-WAN jumps toward the safety of the black sandy edge of the lava river. He yells at Anakin.

OBI-WAN: It’s over, Anakin. I have the high ground.

ANAKIN: You underestimate my power!

OBI-WAN: Don’t try it.

ANAKIN follows, and OBI-WAN cuts his young apprentice at the knees, then cuts off his left arm in the blink of an eye. ANAKIN tumbles down the embankment and rolls to a stop near the edge of the lava.

ANAKIN struggles to pull himself up the embankment with his mechanical hand. His thin leather glove has been burned off. He keeps sliding down in the black sand.
OBI-WAN: (continuing)… You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would, destroy the Sith, not join them. It was you who would bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness.

OBI-WAN picks up Anakin’s light saber and begins to walk away. He stops and looks back.

ANAKIN: I hate you!

OBI-WAN: You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.

At this point in the story, Anakin is already involved in the second and third stage of the satanic cycle. He is convinced that the crisis in the Galactic Republic can only be stopped by sacrificing the Jedi and by establishing the rule of the Sith. Moreover, he believes that the power of the Sith will save the life of his wife Padme (but he will tragically accomplish the opposite).

In any case, Anakin is willing to believe Palpatine, who portrays the Jedi as a threat to the survival of the Republic. After being named “Darth Vader” while receiving his new identity as Sith Lord, Anakin is prepared to sacrifice the Jedi in order to prevent further “civil war” and establish “peace” (from script number 88 & 130):

PALPATINE: You must sense what I have come to suspect … the Jedi Council want control of the Republic… they’re planning to betray me.

ANAKIN: I don’t think…

PALPATINE: Anakin, search your feelings. You know, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I know they don’t trust you…

PALPATINE: Or the Senate… or the Republic… or democracy for that matter.

ANAKIN: I have to admit my trust in them has been shaken.

PALPATINE: Why? They asked you to do something that made you feel dishonest, didn’t they?

ANAKIN doesn’t say anything. He simply looks down.

PALPATINE: (continuing) They asked you to spy on me, didn’t they?

ANAKIN: I don’t know… I don’t know what to say.

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

* * *

PALPATINE: Every single Jedi, including your friend Obi-Wan Kenobi, is now an enemy of the Republic. You understand that, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I understand, Master.

PALPATINE: We must move quickly. The Jedi are relentless; if they are not all destroyed, it will be civil war without end. First, I want you to go to the Jedi Temple. We will catch them off balance. Do what must be done, Lord Vader. Do not hesitate. Show no mercy. Only then will you be strong enough with the dark side to save Padme.

ANAKIN: What about the other Jedi spread across the galaxy?

PALPATINE: Their betrayal will be dealt with. After you have killed all the Jedi in the Temple, go to the Mustafar system. Wipe out Viceroy Gunray and the other Separatist leaders. Once more, the Sith will rule the galaxy, and we shall have peace.

The reasons given by Darth Sidious (Palpatine) and Darth Vader (Anakin) to justify the murder of the Jedi are the exact same reasons given by the chief priests and the Pharisees in the Gospels to justify the murder of Jesus.

Jesus accuses the Jewish leaders of obeying “the devil”. In the Gospel of John, the devil clearly is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism. Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies. [Note that Jesus does not believe that God wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice”. He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”…]

John 8: 39-44

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.

John 11: 45-50

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.

John 18: 33-38

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Although both the killing of Jesus and the Jedi is justified by the potential danger they supposedly carry with them, there is a crucial difference between the attitude of Jesus and the attitude of the Jedi regarding the charges put against them. Jesus indeed is not drawn into a rivalry with “the kings of this world”, while the Jedi see no other option but to fight “the kings of their world”, the Sith.

In the competition to become rulers of the Galaxy, the Sith and the Jedi imitate each other more and more. As they try to distinguish themselves from each other, they tragically establish the opposite: they become, in the words of René Girard, “mimetic doubles” in a crisis of undifferentiation. At the height of the crisis, the Jedi are convinced that they should temporarily abandon normal democratic rules and replace so-called “corrupted” Senators in order to achieve peace. That’s exactly what Palpatine did earlier when he became a Chancellor with extended power! Moreover, the Jedi justify their politics of excluding “the betrayers” by referring to a potential plot against their order – once again, this is exactly the same as when Palpatine referred to a potential plot against the Senate to justify the eradication of the Jedi. Yoda senses the danger of this situation, as if he realizes that eventually there is no difference between so-called “good” and “bad” violence (from script number 117):

MACE WINDU: I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi. The dark side of the Force surrounds the Chancellor.

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: If he does not give up his emergency powers after the destruction of Grievous, then he should be removed from office.

MACE WINDU: That could be a dangerous move… the Jedi Council would have to take control of the Senate in order to secure a peaceful transition…

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: … and replace the Congress with Senators who are not filled with greed and corruption.

YODA: To a dark place this line of thought will carry us. Hmm… great care we must take.

From this perspective, maybe the greatest wisdom in Episode III comes from Palpatine, Darth Sidious (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

ANAKIN: The Jedi use their power for good.

PALPATINE: Good is a point of view, Anakin. And the Jedi point of view is not the only valid one. The Dark Lords of the Sith believe in security and justice also, yet they are considered by the Jedi to be…

ANAKIN: … evil.

PALPATINE: … from a Jedi’s point of view. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. The difference between the two is the Sith are not afraid of the dark side of the Force. That is why they are more powerful.

ANAKIN: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.

PALPATINE: And the Jedi don’t?

ANAKIN: The Jedi are selfless … they only care about others.


PALPATINE: Or so you’ve been trained to believe. Why is it, then, that they have asked you to do something you feel is wrong?

ANAKIN: I’m not sure it’s wrong.

PALPATINE: Have they asked you to betray the Jedi code? The Constitution? A friendship? Your own values? Think. Consider their motives. Keep your mind clear of assumptions. The fear of losing power is a weakness of both the Jedi and the Sith.

It is no surprise then that both sides use violence: Jedi Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi are killing clones while Anakin – now Darth Vader – is killing the separatists.

In the final battle of Episode III between Anakin and his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin once again reveals the insight into the state of undifferentiation between mimetic doubles like the Sith and the Jedi. Both Obi-Wan and Anakin feel the other “is lost” and has to die (from script number 214):

OBI-WAN: I have failed you, Anakin. I was never able to teach you to think.

ANAKIN and OBI-WAN confront each other on the lava river.

ANAKIN: I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over…

OBI-WAN: From the Sith! Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.

ANAKIN: From the Jedi point of view! From my point of view, the Jedi are evil.

OBI-WAN: Well, then you are lost!

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, my Master. I wish it were otherwise.

If these words of Anakin were applied to the Star Wars saga as a whole, with the Sith portrayed as “the good guys”, the Episodes would have had some mirroring titles, namely (by the way, the working title of The Return of the Jedi for a long time was The Revenge of the Jedi, indeed):

Episode I: A New Hope (as opposed to The Phantom Menace)
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Episode III: The Return of the Sith (as opposed to The Revenge of the Sith)
Episode IV: The Phantom Menace (as opposed to A New Hope)
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: The Revenge of the Jedi (as opposed to The Return of the Jedi)

Star Wars Prequel Trilogy PosterStar Wars Original Trilogy Poster

Perhaps the ultimate difference between the message of Star Wars and the message of the Gospels becomes clear by considering a story told by Palpatine (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: (continuing) Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis “the wise”?


PALPATINE: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.

ANAKIN: He could actually save people from death?

PALPATINE: The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.

ANAKIN: What happened to him?

PALPATINE: He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. (smiles) Plagueis never saw it coming. It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.

The last sentence of Palpatine’s story also refers to a passage in the Gospels, when Jesus is dangling on the cross and is sneered at by the rulers, for instance in Mark 15:31:

The chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Jesus among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!”

sacrificial peaceBoth the Sith and the Jedi “save others” by “killing enemies” and “teaching others to become like them”, i.e. killers. Hence the Sith and the Jedi become rivals to both their enemies and their apprentices. This rivalry can only end in the death of one party, until the inevitable cycle of rivalry starts again. This is the meaning of Palpatine’s story. In the Star Wars Universe there has to be sacrifice, one way or the other, to create an ever provisional “peace”. In Episode VI, for instance, in the end either Luke Skywalker or Emperor Palpatine is killed. Darth Vader – Anakin Skywalker – eventually kills the Emperor to save his son. This means that Anakin Skywalker is “the One who brings balance to the Force” after all. He fulfilled his destiny. Moreover, by dying himself Darth-Vader-Anakin-Skywalker, the “evil one” while alive, becomes the “savior” of the Galaxy in the blink of an eye.

It seems that, by telling the story of Darth Plagueis, Palpatine prophesied his own tragic fate. Once again, in this way, the story of Palpatine refers to the history of Caesar, who was killed also by Brutus, his “son”. In the words of Jesus (Matthew 26:52): “Those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Darth Vader vs. The EmperorAssassination of Julius Caesar by BrutusThe Gospels hold that there is another way. Throughout the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus criticizes the universal tendency of human communities to structure themselves according to the identification of a common enemy or a common victim (be it an individual or a group). So on the one hand, concerning the group people are part of and that often manifests itself at the expense of a common enemy (for instance an adulteress who is about to be stoned – see John 8:1-11), it is no surprise that Jesus sows discord. It is no coincidence that he claims (Matthew 10:34-36):

I did not come to bring peace“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

This intention of Jesus, to create conflict where there is a certain order, is actually and paradoxically a plea against violence. Family members who slavishly obey a pater familias, tribe members who harmoniously feel superior to other groups, criminal gangs who blindly pledge allegiance to the mob boss, cult members and fundamentalist believers who are prepared to fight for their leader and their God till death, anxious employees who sell their soul to keep their job in a sick working environment, (youthful) cliques who strengthen their internal cohesion by bullying someone, whole nations who bow to the demands of a populist dictator and execute so-called “traitors” – Jesus doesn’t like it one bit.

Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrination, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus likes it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says. Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical.

In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. That’s why he can say on the other hand, eventually (John 14:27):

Peace I leave with you“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Indeed Jesus saves others by calling their sacrifice or expulsion from the community into question. When he takes sides with a woman accused of adultery, who is about to be stoned, he does not want to get stoned himself, but he hopes that the community will show “mercy” and will not “sacrifice” (see Matthew 9:13).

Truman Atomic Bombing HiroshimaHowever, in consistently refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus is eventually sacrificed himself. Indeed, Jesus saved others, but he cannot save himself: if you stand up for the bullied, you run the risk of being bullied yourself, and you can only hope that others will show mercy as you yourself refuse to take part in sacrifice. When Jesus is arrested to be crucified, he refuses to start a civil war. He refuses to become the imitator of his persecutors, a “prince of this world”, a “Muammar Gaddafi” or even a “Harry Truman” (who considered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified). By withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of his persecutors and the ones who betrayed him – his disciples), Jesus creates the possibility of a truly new world. Imitating the One who “offers the other cheek”, the One who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, indeed allows each and every one of us to accept and deal with our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or “crucified” for jumping to this occasion…

To conclude, both the Star Wars saga and the Gospels eventually reveal violence for what it is, with all its tendencies towards undifferentiation, but the Star Wars saga seems to consider this violence to be an inevitable, tragic part of the social make-up. In the end, according to the Star Wars saga, the world always needs some sort of “sacrifice” that allows for a new “order”, i.e. for new “differences” between a group and its common enemy, between “good” and “bad” violence. The Gospels, on the other hand, consider another possibility – the imitation of Christ. In the words of René Girard (from an interview on Dutch television in 1985 – click here):

René Girard portraitYou see, what the Bible tells you and no other religion tells you, is that sacrifice is so inborn in human beings, so important in human society, that you can refuse sacrifice only if you accept to die. Because the moment will come where rivalry, mimetic rivalry between your brother and you, will put you in a situation where either he kills you or you kill him. And I think Greek tragedy stops right there – it says: “Well, I have the right of self-defense. It is mine.” What I think the Bible does, is saying: “You have to go beyond that.”

Star Wars

Social Psychology & Mimetic Theory

Students of psychology would not be surprised by some of the key statements made by René Girard and his mimetic theory.

Indeed social psychology time and again shows how people’s social behavior and self-concepts are shaped by imitation processes and scapegoat mechanisms, as stressed by mimetic theory. For instance, Stanley Milgram’s obedience study and the Stanford Prison Experiment show how powerful individuals as well as socially established abstract norms of “role” models are easily obeyed (imitated). The attribution theory teaches how someone tends to “blame” circumstances to justify his or her own “bad” behavior, while, on the other hand, he or she tends to hold others personally responsible for their “loathsome” conduct. Apparently, others are not so easily excused and appear as convenient scapegoats. People who play the blame game consider their own behavior to be “very different” from similar behavior in others. Insights into social identities reveal how gaining an identity through conformity (again by imitating others, of course) leads to stereotyping of and competing with others (as common enemies and scapegoats of one’s group). Here also, there is a tendency to exaggerate differences between one’s own group and other groups. The conduct of one’s own group is easily justified, while similar conduct of a competing group is considered “unjust”. Achever Clausewitz (2007)The problem, of course, is that competing groups imitate this reasoning for their own particular group and thus reinforce the rivalry between each other (read René Girard’s Battling to the End in this regard, on mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale – highly recommended!).

These are all but some preliminary considerations regarding the relationship between mimetic theory and social psychology. There is much more to explore in this relationship. So without further ado, in order to know where to start, here is a short overview of some basic studies and concepts of social psychology which relate directly to mimetic theory.

1. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study (click for more information)

Stanley Milgram Obedience to AuthorityNot surprisingly, in light of mimetic theory, disobedience is more likely to occur:

  • when the experimenter leaves the room
  • when the orders are given by an “ordinary” man
  • when the subject works with peers who refuse to go on
  • [considering the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas]
    when the “learner” is in the same room

2. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo – click for more)

People adapt to the social norms of the role assigned to them. Prisoners become distressed, helpless and panicky. Guards become nice, or “tough but fair”, or tyrannical.

3. Social Cognition

Social cognition is an area of social psychology concerned with social influences on thought, memory, perception and all kinds of other cognitive processes. More specifically, researchers are interested in how people’s self-perception affects relationships, thoughts, beliefs and values. Here are some findings regarding attribution, factors in attitude change and conformity.

Attribution theory:

Attribution TheoryPeople are motivated to explain their own and others’ behavior by attributing its causes to situation or disposition. Again, not surprisingly in light of mimetic theory, people show the tendency to overestimate personality factors in explaining the behavior of others, while they underestimate situational influence. On the other hand, the concept of self-serving bias points to the fact that people often do the opposite when explaining their own behavior: people try to justify themselves.

Major factors in attitude change:

  • endorsement by an admired or attractive person
  • a leader who offers unconditional love, acceptance and attention
  • the creation of a new identity based on a group
  • repetition (imitation, indeed) of ideas and assertions; entrapment (justification of an escalating commitment); isolation from other sources of information

Conformity (click for more) (see also Solomon Asch, click here),

related to:

  • groupthink: in close-knit groups all members tend to think alike and suppress disagreement for the sake of harmony
  • diffusion of responsibility
  • bystander apathy
  • deindividuation (the loss of awareness of one’s own individuality in groups or crowds)
  • ethnocentrism
    (aids survival by making people feel attached to and willing to work for their own group)
  • group identity and social identity
    (a person’s self-concept based on an identification with a group, a nation or a culture, or with gender or other social roles)
  • Robbers Cave Experiment 1“us vs. them” social identities that are strengthened when groups compete (in-group vs. out-group; see Muzafer Sherif and his Robbers Cave experiment)
  • stereotypes that distort reality for they:
    exaggerate differences between groups and underestimate differences within groups; allow for disliking others so people feel closer to their own group and inflate self-worthRobbers Cave Experiment 2