Time For a Change #20: Memes Can Drive You to a Goal

by William Reed on July 13, 2012

According to Wikipedia, a Meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The word was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene (1976). It is based on the Greek word mimeme, the root of the word mimic, and is a play on the word gene, reflecting the process by which ideas spread and reproduce. In French the word mȇme has similar meanings ranging from same to even so.

The concept that ideas spread within a culture is nothing new, but the biological comparison has taken hold and captured the imagination of people in fields from social science to marketing. Once a meme takes hold, it has the power to motivate as well as duplicate. It is the infectious viral quality of memes that gives them such a powerful influence over people.

Another evolutionary biologist and prominent philosopher is Dan Dennett, who spoke about Dangerous Memes at a TED Conference. His talk begins with an ant which has been infected by a parasitic fluke that commandeers its brain, leading it to senseless and suicidal behavior. He says that memes can commandeer the human brain and also produce behavior that makes no sense from the perspective of biological survival. Religious and political memes can be so powerful that to the believer, they are worth dying for. Many people have laid down their lives in the service of an idea.

Urban legends are also memes. Originating as macabre jokes or fabricated tales, they often suggest dire things that can happen without proper precaution. Tourists are drugged and anesthetized, only to wake up with one kidney removed. Stories about contaminated foods or tampering with the water supply seem to contain an element of plausibility, and even though the rumors lack any detail for verification, they spread like wildfire. The Internet makes the spread of ideas easier than ever before.

Although memes have a viral quality in the way that ideas are spread, now even the idea of the meme has taken hold as a meme, and this has spawned meme generating software, which falls somewhere between low grade advertising and digital graffiti. Most of these artificial memes are meaningless, and therefore not likely to go viral unless force-fed by spam mail. Memes are used in marketing, but there are so many competing memes for products and services, that it takes more than a catch phrase to change people’s behavior

Making memes work for you

One book which makes the process very clear is Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It shows the essential ingredients that ensure that an idea will survive and thrive, and why urban legends and bogus schemes often spread effortlessly, while people with worthwhile ideas often struggle to even get the word out. Their acronym for these ingredients is SUCCES: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. These ingredients are what give ideas virility and the power to motivate people.

Once you understand this you can actually begin to create and cultivate your own memes. Start with your notes and sketches related to your GOALS, and watch your motivation rise and your memes gain power as you communicate them to others.

Memes are usually a combination of verbal and visual elements. The more meaningful they are to other people, the easier they are to remember to to share, the faster they will spread.

Verbal memes can be found in slogans and catch phrases, powerful statements and quotes, parables and stories. Strong memes survive centuries, and get translated into many languages. Weak memes fade in the morning sun.

Visual memes can be found in photos with captions, videos and movies, and duplicatable demonstrations. A wonder source of memes is the site TED.com Ideas Worth Spreading—

Riveting Talks by Remarkable People. Great books can shape your life. Can you name 5 to 10 books which have truly changed your life, without having read you would not be the same person you are today? Great people can have an even more powerful transformational effect, and they are often connected the great books you have read.

Memes are hypnotic, and hence are a powerful way to commandeer the mind for a cause. Not all memes are in your best interest. For that reason it can be useful to know also how to break the spell of a meme. Understanding how memes work can help build your immunity. An excellent book on the power of semantics to create our reality is, Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa and Alan Hayakawa. A book which will help you see how even numbers and graphs can misrepresent reality is, How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff. Propaganda propagates because people succumb to memes without understanding them. Awareness and reflection can make you more conscious of memes before they command your consciousness.

An excellent way to examine a meme is to view it through a Mandala Lens, by analyzing its elements in at least 8 frames rather than just one. A good place to start would be to download the MEME MANDALA summary of this article, and then start looking for ways to use memes to motivate you toward goals and causes of your conscious choice.

William ReedWilliam Reed specializes in applying practical wisdom from Japanese and Asian culture to solving the problems of modern business and living. He is the author of the Flexible Focus column on Active Garage, the syndicated column Creative Career Path and the book A Zoom Lens for Your life. William is also a Representative Director and Co-Founder of EMC QUEST Corporation, which provides Coaching for Communication and Change, World Class Speaking™, and Accelerated Action with GOALSCAPE™.
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