The Science Behind Memes

The Science Behind Memes
The Science Behind Memes

Table Of Contents

Science Behind Memes

Spread the Word, like a Virus

Richard Brodie’s book is a living example of the theories he proposes. At every opportunity Brodie plants the idea that the reader should tell other people about this amazing work — even become involved with him in the multilevel marketing of it! The memes are “this is a unique, valuable book”, “I should share this wonderful news with others”, “I could make money with this book.”

A meme is “a thought, belief, or attitude in your mind that can spread to and from other people’s minds.”

The word meme reminds one of gene. Which is no accident. The concepts Brodie (who is the author of Microsoft Word) eloquently espouses are based in socio-biological theory.

“Meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. Just as genes (or more particularly DNA) “seek” to spread themselves over and over in physical bodies, so too, do memes “seek” to replicate themselves in one mind after another.

So “good” memes are those which are successful in spreading themselves.

There is no value judgement in the term “good” anymore than there is a suggestion of conscious intent on the part of DNA to multiply.

A good meme while I was in graduate school was that Sigmund Freud had discovered The Truth.

There was no gainsaying His pronouncements. The Oedipus and Electra complexes were taught as Fact. Yet, as I wrote in Love, S*x & Hypnosis: Secrets of Psychotherapy, “the notion that a little girl would want s*x with her father is patently absurd.

It seems never to have occurred to Freud that, if his theory were correct, the girls would hardly have fantasized abuse; they would have dreamed of enjoyable erotic contact.

The truth was that his patients had been abused and that Freud yielded to his own fears and the pressures of society [Victorian memes ?] to twist the facts and his interpretation.”

Three generations of women have been harmed by Freudian memes.

In recent times new memes (including those of feminism and humanistic psychology) have begun to supplant the Freudian Myth but it still has a strong hold on many minds.

Conditioning is essential for memes to become so embedded. You might regard Freudianism as a religion evangelized until recently in most schools of psychology.

This closely parallels Brodie’s explanation for the spreading of religious concepts to children:

“Children typically get programmed with religious beliefs through conditioning by repetition. Whatever the religion, children go from zero beliefs to full-fledged faith, or as fledged as they get, by being told about the divinity of God or Jesus or David Koresh over and over again until it becomes real — those memes become programmed.

If you listen repeatedly to religious speech, after enough repetitions you will actually begin to notice God and his works where there was just chaotic life going on before. What was formerly chance becomes a miracle.

What was pain is now karma.

What was human nature is now sin. And regardless of whether these religious memes are presented as Truth or as allegorical mythology, you’re conditioned just the same.”

Brodie emphasises that we have Stone Age impulses ill-adapted to modern living. Thus, he says, our main urges, or instincts, revolve around danger, food, and s*x . Often these primitive urges (or “buttons” as Brodie calls them) override our conscious will because the latter is a comparatively recent evolutionary development.

Which explains why male politicians continue to become embroiled in s*x scandals with young women, despite the political consequences.. According to my understanding of Brodie’s claims, the politicians are simply acting out a primal need to spread their sperm (and thus their DNA).

Such urges are not, as has been thought hitherto, to continue the human species, or from deliberate intent, but from the innate purpose of DNA. This purpose is self-propagation.

We, as humans, are simply the vehicles which make the replication of DNAs possible. The urge continues even inappropriately or futilely in the face of technological barriers (e.g., birth control).

Memes are similar. Without attributing any divine, human, or conscious intent to them, memes “seek” hosts — minds — to copy themselves and recopy themselves over and over in subsequent minds.

When there is a conscious agency — such as someone founding a religion, or a salesperson deliberately pressing your buttons — then Brodie considers these to be “designer viruses”.

He even tells you how to create what might be considered the ultimate designer virus: a cult.

His purpose for this exposure is not to encourage unscrupulous persons to deceive but to enlighten the public so we will be inoculated against such scams.

Not that all viruses of the mind are harmful. Brodie tells us how to disinfect our minds of those which are, and he concludes the book on an optimistic note with proposals for “quality of life” viruses which would revolutionize education and society.

What The Heck Is a Meme?

I wrote the phrase, “Irusha likes cake” on my brand new whiteboard and left it there for a couple of weeks. I was consulting a large financial company, and Irusha was the name of the guy that sat next to me – and a good friend of mine.

The company had a brand new office space – and I thought a clean whiteboard is a sin, so I wrote the phrase as a joke.

In the two or three weeks it was up many people stopped by and looked at the whiteboard and puzzled at it. It had a bit of a poetic meter and people would walk away muttering, “Irusha likes cake?”

What happened next was truly astounding. Irusha would be introduced to people at meetings and they would say, “I hear you like cake?”

If someone in the building had a birthday they would always save a piece a cake for Irusha. Many times these are people who didn’t know Irusha and had never seen what I wrote on the whiteboard. For the next few years this guy got a lot of cake. I may have a strange sense of humor, but sometimes it pays off.

“Irusha likes cake” is a meme. A what? A meme, pronounced MEEM, is a concept introduced in Richard Dawkins’ 1967 book The Selfish Gene.

It is basically a self-propagating unit of social imitation. It’s something that people repeat and pass along. Concepts and behaviors can be memes.

Some more famous memes you might remember are advertising catch-phrases like “where’s the beef?” and “plop plop fizz fizz”.

They are memes because their use spread way beyond their uses in commercials. How about “is that your final answer” from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? People imitate Donald Trump doing the cobra thing with his hand and saying, “you’re fired.”

Have you ever ‘Googled’ something, used a Kleenex, or made a Xerox. These are examples where brand names become the product.

You don’t actually use a Styrofoam cup, you use a Styrofoam brand styrene cup. Marketers love this phenomenon – but the legal department hates it.

Sometimes when trademarks become generic they lose their legal standing – but I’m not a lawyer so I won’t get into that here.

Memes can also be behaviors – like jogging with headphones. At one point people just ran; along came the Sony Walkman and everything changed.

Emailing people is a meme. Back in 1995 I spoke with the person in charge of technology for state department of education and he couldn’t fathom why people would want to email each other.

Using cellphones, text messaging, almost any new set of behaviors that people adopt and pass on are memes.

Accepted ideas – or beliefs are also memes. When people thought the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth – those were memes.

Any belief held by, enforced by, or passed on within a group is a meme. A belief is simply anything that is held to be true (even if it is true). Religious, social, cultural, and political groups pass lots of belief-memes.

So what does this have to do with your small business marketing? You might create a meme that lives on beyond your advertising and marketing.

Maybe you come up with a catchy slogan, a jingle, or a new behavior that people pass on. It might become part of your word of mouth marketing campaign.

What makes a good meme?

It should be short and easy to pass on. If it’s a phrase or word it should be easy to pronounce.
It needs to be a complete idea or behavior.
It should be easy to use.
If you find yourself with a good meme – you might find a huge bump in new business. Why? Think about Irusha and that cake. You get your message passed around with minimal marketing reinforcement. Isn’t that the point of a word of mouth campaign?

Look for the memes around you, and look to how you might make your own marketing meme-worthy.

Memes As Creative Mind Prods

A meme is an idea or nugget of information that can be replicated in your own mind and shared with others through viral spreading.

An emerging meme, having burst on the scene and established itself as the new norm, now becomes the reference point from which cultures and corporations start their thought processes in relation to that issue and from which they are prodded to take action.

In French the word meme means ‘same’.

So it helps us understand that the concept of meme deals with getting alignment of new thought among the masses so they all think the same way., at least until the next meme pops on the scene.

So there’s an inter-weaving between seminal moments in time where a meme enters human consciousness and the subsequent flow and viral spread of a meme.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Small business grew into big business from its ability to offer many jobs and offer a desirable product or service to the masses.

That was considered a good thing until the corporate system squeezed out the little guys and became mechanized through cost-benefit market efficiencies.

The meme shifted. Now Big Business was decried for its inhumanity, which eventually bred a meme for CSR- Corporate Social Responsibility- which was born to be able to re-humanize corporate structures and activities for both insiders and those affected by the reach of the organization.

This has now evolved into a new field of Corporate Virtue and Ethics as a base from which strategic decisions are made and new reach is sought in the name of doing good. And so it evolves over time.

By the way, the meme itself comes with no value judgment; it exists to replicate and perpetuate itself. It is we humans who latch on to new memes and manage the change by adding our labels, values, rationales and justifications to a meme.

This then allows and, indeed, invites us to practice ‘creative infidelity’ by looking and acting in new novel ways as we seek to stay up to date in the modern world.

Over time, as many people accept the meme and it becomes embedded in society, that becomes part of the acceptable cultural tradition.

Memes do happen naturally as cultures and ideas bump up against each other; with outcomes unknown.

I believe you can, however, harness the power of your mind and use creativity tools to stimulate and leverage meme generation.

This process has been used in history by people who wanted to wield power or make a difference, on any level of influence, for good or evil.

What do you think?

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