RE: Emotional Selection in Memes: The Case of Urban Legends

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Tue 11 Nov 2003 - 11:43:33 GMT

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            <<...but what about more recent cultural artefacts that can illicit disgust
    > in some people (e.g. clashing colours or the wrong kind of shoes amongst
    > fashionistas)?>>
            <This point is covered in Susan Blackmore's 'The Meme Machine'. Since the
    > best imitators would be most likely to pick up useful new skills, there
    > was
    > a selection pressure in favor of people with an inclination to imitate the
    > best imitators. That's basically a selection pressure for imitating the
    > coolest people. All things being equal, someone with a propensity to feel
    > disgust at things that could incur the disapproval of the fashionistas
    > would
    > be more likely to be close to the best imitators, and thereby in the best
    > position to learn from them.>
            Indeed, you're right, thanks for the reminder. Doesn't she also suggest that as well as utilitarian things to copy off the socially successful (e.g. skill with a bow and arrow), people borrow- perhaps by mistake, perhaps because it's easier to copy, perhaps because others will be fooled just as well- other attributes of the successful (e.g. using the same colour arrow flights)?

            Still, this still reduces meme selection/transmission to little more than a convoluted form of evolutionary psychology- in a case like this, social status is the need being fulfilled by copying others' dress. Maybe that's all it should be, and there's no problem with that I guess, but I always get the feeling that some of the big names in the field (in terms of writing the high profile books, as Blackmore and Brodie etc. have done) are arguing for effects above and beyond evo. psych. explanations.

            The evo. psych. response does run into the same kind of problem that uses and gratification research run into in media studies, in that it doesn't really help you understand the details, why _this particular_piece of clothing, should end up as a cultural trend as opposed to many others.
            (In media studies, saying that someone watches TV for a particular need, like escapism say, says little about why people specifically choose TV rather than the myriad other ways people have of fulfilling that need). In the same way, saying an urban legend spreads because it evokes disgust doesn't explain why others stories that evoke disgust don't.

            IMHO, I think something else is going on psychologically with urban myths and legends, which is something to do with safe risks- just as in ghost stories or horror films- risks or fears are articulated through stories, that in the urban myth variety might just be true, and are presented as possibly true, which indirectly expose people to those risks, which conveys elements of entertainment and information. The same thing is going on in parables, presumably.

            So, I think looking at things like the degree of disgust (or other emotion) illicited by a meme as a causal factor in its transmission, misses part of the equation, which is about consonance and learning, perhaps, i.e. is the story consonant enough with people's lives that they can incorporate its message into their worldview in a way that makes them likely to pass it on to others. (As I type, I can think of lots in higher education, from stories I heard when applying to university about supposed unusual uni interviews, to stories I hear and tell now as a lecturer about student excuses for not submitting work, degrees of cheating etc. etc.- like the student who asked me the other day where Leicester was- an innocent enough question you might ask, but given that they're studying at De Montfort University IN Leicester, quite a bold admittance of geographical ignorance).

            Anyway, rambling on so I'll stop.


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