How Memetics Drives Human Behavior

Much of human behavior is evolved specifically for memetics. Find out how memes create impulses within you.

The Selfish Meme

Memes are replicating units of information. Just as our bodies evolve as carriers for individual genes – “selfish genes” – our minds are carriers for selfish memes.

Memes survive through repetition, both inside our heads and in our communications with one another. Memes themselves are selfish – they aim to have themselves replicated.

This does not mean that memes have agency. They don’t actually think, or have aims, or motivations. But they are subject to selection pressure. Because the memes that survive are those that encourage repetition, we end up with a world full of memes fighting to repeat themselves.

This war for attention among memes themselves has caused many of our deepest impulses.

Human Impulses To Repeat

Our brains have evolved to repeat memes, possibly before they were able to use language. Cave paintings and the like are signs  of early memetic activity.

Some of the most basic human behavior is all about meme repetition. Let’s look at two examples.

Constant Thought

Non-stop thinking is a common problem humans have. You might have experienced this yourself, and it may have kept you up at night. Anybody that’s trained in mindfulness or meditation will recognize how difficult it is to still one’s mind without training.

Constant thought is not an evolutionary advantage. Firstly, thinking takes energy. Focused thought is of course necessary, and the main reason we’re the planet’s apex species. But idle thought about nothing in particular does nothing for us. It wastes energy that e.g. dogs don’t waste, as they laze around in the sun.

Ask anyone who meditates about the benefits of a still mind. They’re numerous, and in the case of Buddhism spawned a whole religion.

So why do we think so much? Memes provide one explanation. Remember that memes are selected for repetition, which is the key to their survival. Any meme that doesn’t attract enough attention within the carrier’s mind won’t survive long enough for the carrier to pass it on to others.

Over time, the memes that survived were the ones we couldn’t stop thinking about. So the memes – selfishly – hijacked our brain systems, wasting energy, to ensure their survival. Your impulse for constant though is a memetic effect.

Constant Talking

Some talk more than others, but hardly anyone can go through the day without some sort of talking.

We don’t always talk about serious matters. In fact, most of the time, people talk about nothing of importance. So why talk so much?

As is the case inside our heads, the memes we carry encourage us to repeat them. If we learn of a juicy piece of gossip, we’re almost helpless not to discuss it. If a particularly catchy tune is stuck in your head, it’s hard not to sing or hum it out loud.

The world selects for memes that encourage their own replication. And we humans, with our impulses, become mere vehicles for these effects.

Incidentally, this partly explains the entire celebrity gossip and pop music industries, and a lot of advertising slogans. Think about it.

Memetic Influence On Human Behavior

When you start to look at humans as vehicles for memetic activity, it becomes clear how much of our communication is governed by the rules of memetics. Some behavior that seems like a weird quirk of our evolution becomes very explainable through the lens of selfish memes.

It’s not hard to extend this out to other ways humans think and communicate. Keep an eye out for its effects.


I write about information, memetics, and society. If memetic effects interest you, subscribe for email updates and follow me on Twitter, where I also post daily.

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