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Thou can’t not covet

Wanting what others have may be hardwired in the brain

As every kid knows, the very best toy is the one that someone else is playing with. A new study on covetous adults explains why other people’s possessions always seem better.

Seeds of this desire are sown in the mirror neuron system, a part of the brain that is activated in a similar pattern whether a person is performing an action or merely watching someone else do it.

“Mimetic desire” was first articulated by the French philosopher René Girard in the 1980s. Envy can spread among people like a disease, a force that explains much of human behavior, Girard proposed. Now, French neuroscientists have verified the phenomenon and even attempted to explain how it happens.

“They really take a philosophical theory and make it an experiment,” says neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of UCLA.

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