/The psychology of memes

The psychology of memes

The year no one will miss, 2020. A year where a pandemic flourished, where the Black Lives Matter movement was broadcast around the world, and people’s true colors shown over the stupid argument of wearing a mask. Out of all of those struggles, however, people’s sense of humor seemed to stay consistent.  

With a plethora of memes ranging from ridiculous topics such as the movie “Cats” and Elon Musk and Grime’s baby name to memes that connected to serious matters such as the possibility of there being a third world war, the COVID-19 outbreak, and the election of a new president.  

Why is it that people find the humor during serious situations? Why do we as human beings turn to humor as a comfort or coping mechanism? By looking into the context of memes, the human psyche of Gen Z, as well as how memes are a product of culture, I should be able to answer all these questions.  

Memes are a product of culture.  

Richard Dawkins, British ethologist is credited with creating the word meme. In his work, “The Selfish Game,” Dawkins states that memes are a cultural parallel to biological genes and considered them in a manner like “selfish” genes, as being in control of their own reproduction and thus serving their own end. 

This theory does not mean that if you like a meme, you are selfish. It means that the reason memes become so popular is because of how in touch they are with what’s going on and relatable to others.  

For example, the memes about toilet paper back in March 2020. Dawkins goes into detail on how memes are like a parasite fighting for dominance within the internet world which is why some memes last longer than others.  

Sharing memes on the internet is a lot like sharing other kinds of things in real life like gossip. Both types of sharing are shown to be emotionally driven and the more stimulating it is emotionally the more likely it is to be shared. Examples of high stimulation emotions are joy, anger and fear, which is why memes that connect to serious subjects like fear and anger, such as World War 3 memes, go more viral than memes that evoke low stimulation emotions like sadness.  

There is also the bandwagon effect – the more people share an idea or belief the more likely others will too, which is why memes are retweeted and shared across multiple platforms because people have this sense of sharing. The bandwagon effect also explains why memes die because the novelty of the meme just dies over time once the next meme of the month starts to gain popularity.  

This is why at one point society thought “Grumpy Cat” was hilarious until over time after seeing hundreds of the same Grumpy Cat tweet it eventually died and the new, hip meme was trending on Twitter.   

During hard times people tend to gravitate to things that spark joy in them.  

According to the CDC, in late June of 2020 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use. One way people tend to cope with struggling mental health is through humor.  

Humor is a great way to fight depression and whenever one finds something funny, they usually send that to a friend which then leads to more shared laughter.  

Memes are creative outlets that can address issues that are part of the human experience but are just not something that we like to talk about outside the internet. Memes bring a sense of community and can create connections, because a group of people can bond over their shared sense of humor by sharing a meme about their 2020 plans.  

It is scientifically proven that laughter makes us feel better. When we laugh, the brain decreases cortisol and other stress-related chemicals.  

It activates secretions of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine which are the same chemicals we release when we work out or exercise. Laughter can dampen stress, ease pain, lower blood pressure, stokes your immune system and brightens your mental outlook.  

According to Emily Sands in her 2017 TedTalk, “More Than Just a Meme,” the importance of memes comes from their universality and their ability to touch on experiences and feelings we all have that we do not talk about because society has deemed them shameful.  

Memes are more than just funny videos or pictures with captions, they are the language of humor. They help make connections with others and help others find humor during dark times.  

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Sarah Clayton is a writer for The Alabamian. She is a third-year senior theatre major who enjoys all things theatre related. When she is not writing for The Alabamian or busy with classes she enjoys listening to music, reading, making TikToks, watching movies or TV shows she has already seen and hanging out with friends.