Watch Out for Memes!
Who's running your life anyway?
Published: February 25, 2011
How subtle mind viruses influence our thinking.
There are certain tendencies you have because you are a product of nature. These tendencies support your survival and reproduction. They are things like your sex drive and your desire to breathe, eat, sleep, and so forth. Scientists have a number of different names for these tendencies, but I’m just going to lump them all together under the term instincts. Unfortunately, human instincts evolved to support our survival a long time ago and didn’t take into account the kind of world we live in today.
In modern times, those prehistoric instincts often don’t work any better than a deer’s instinct to freeze in the face of oncoming headlights. Fortunately, we have conscious minds that we can use to override our instincts and propel us in the direction of our pursuit of happiness. Remember: instincts are just instincts; tendencies are just tendencies. Knowing what they are gives you more power to consciously override them if you choose.
It’s important to understand human instincts, because they have a great influence on the evolution of memes. (A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events so that more copies of itself get created in other minds.) The memes that appeal to people’s instincts are more likely to replicate and spread throughout the population than the ones that don’t.
Everything you do that is not instinctual is the result of programming. You are programmed by memes. If you went to college, you probably did so to get educated, which is to say, to get programmed with a set of memes that would support your success in life. Having been to college, you have thoughts and behaviors you wouldn’t have had if you were just going on instinct.
Most memes that people are programmed with are acquired without any conscious intent; they just infect you and there you are, living your life by their programming. Such programming includes:
- Your religious (or atheistic) upbringing
- The example your parents set of how relationships work, or don’t
- The TV shows and commercials you’ve watched
What kinds of memes are there? I’ve divided memes into three classes: associations, attitudes about everything in life; distinctions, knives used to slice up reality; and strategies, beliefs about which causes will produce which effects. Each class of meme works to program you in a different way.
For example, let’s look at the association-meme, which links two or more memes in your mind. In my own life, for instance, if I smell creosote, I associate it with the Boston waterfront of my childhood, where my dad would take me on special occasions. I like that smell. It reminds me of happy times. If advertisers knew I liked it and if other people liked it just as much, we’d soon see creosote-smelling ads for vacation spots to take advantage of that association.
Said in another way, I have a certain attitude about creosote. I have attitudes about my work, about all the people in my life, about television, about memes—about everything. These attitudes are memes that associate other memes with one another so that when we are present to one, we become present to the other.
Advertisers don’t wait for you to develop your own association-memes. They go ahead and program you with theirs through television:
- Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet
- Sexy men and Diet Coke
- Sexy women and beer
- Sexy women and computers, cars, garden tools, fan belts . . .
Being programmed with association-memes influences your behavior. This is the classic experiment Pavlov performed on his dog: He rang a bell each time he was about to feed it. Soon the dog developed an association-meme: the bell and food. When the programming was complete, the dog began to salivate upon hearing the bell. Advertisers want you to salivate when you see their product.
There’s a potential quibble here over whether all such associations—are memes, or whether some are just plain old behavioral programming, which we know all about and wouldn’t require a beautiful new theory such as memetics to explain. (Memetics is the study of the workings of memes.) Well, the world is very complex. If being programmed with an association causes any change in your behavior, then it makes sense to consider that bit of programming a potential meme, looking to see if there’s any possibility that the change in your behavior will end up creating copies of the association in others. If you go to a baseball game and say, “Did you know Ken Griffey, Jr., drives a Chevy?” you’ve just passed on your association-meme to someone else.
Associations are connections between memes. When you are programmed with an association-meme, the presence of one thing triggers a thought or feeling about something else. This causes a change in your behavior, which can ultimately spread the meme to another mind.
Richard Brodie is best known as the original author of Microsoft Word. His self-help book, Getting Past OK, is an international bestseller. His groundbreaking book on memes, Virus of the Mind, spent 52 weeks on the Amazon.com Hot 100 and is used as a text in many college courses. An accomplished speaker, Richard has appeared on dozens of television and radio shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show. Richard continues to pursue wide and varied interests, which he occasionally blogs about.