What do you Meme? What the behavioural science of memes can teach us about communication


COVID-19, and the associated lockdowns, has recalibrated the way we communicate. Our social circles have contracted, face-to-face interaction is rare, and the delight of shouting jokes across a bar is a distant memory. But if there is one form of communication that has thrived over the last year, it is memes.

What’s a meme?

Memes have come a long way since the term was coined in 1976 by biologist Richard Dawkins. He invented the concept of a ‘meme’ as a part of his Darwinian theory of cultural evolution. He defined it as a “unit of cultural transmission” – which is basically an umbrella way of talking about cultural ideas, traditions, beliefs and fads. Dawkins’ grand idea was that the spreading of these memes through society could be understood as equivalent to the spread of genes through populations: through replication, competition and natural selection. According to this theory, the social traditions that persist and spread across cultures are those that outcompete others in the game of ‘survival of the fittest’.

These days, when people talk about memes, they’re rarely referring to this academic definition. More often, they are talking about the phenomenon of the viral internet meme. Thanks to the creativity and variety of internet memes, providing a formal definition is not easy. In fact, there are cultural theorists who argue that the term ‘meme’ has itself become a meme!

That said, internet memes generally involve a single image with a few words of user-added text – intended to be shared widely and received humorously. The image gives a recognisable context to guide interpretation of the accompanying wording, which is edited by internet users as the meme is copied and spread across the internet.

Most of us will be familiar with memes as a source of laughs (‘LOLs’). But despite their jovial appearance, deconstructing memes from a behavioural science perspective reveals that memes are an extremely sophisticated form of communication.

The challenge of trying to distil meaning and convey it to another person is a familiar struggle to all of us. Our fond childhood memories of playing the ‘telephone game’ are an early lesson in just how much can go wrong in the exchange of information from one person to another.

And yet memes do this seamlessly. They’re an expert form of shorthand – facilitating the exchange of complex ideas and nuanced meaning with only handful of words and a simple image.

So, by approaching the humble meme through the lens of behavioural science, we can draw some valuable lessons about human communication. And we can refresh ourselves on some fun pieces of psychology along the way.

The behavioural science of memes

There are at least three cognitive biases that make memes such an effective and popular mode of communication…


Co-creation is the lynchpin of meme culture. Memes are designed to be replicated, re-contextualised and remixed according to the whims and creativity of other internet users.

In addition to being fun, this participatory nature of memes taps into one of my favourite cognitive biases: the IKEA effect. The IKEA effect is the behavioural bias that describes how we become over-invested in things that we helped to create.  The name comes from a suite of studies in the last decade that show that we are willing pay extra money to avoid having to part with our lovingly self-assembled furniture, even if it will be replaced with an identical, factory-made replica.

So, when meme culture invites us to join in as participants and creators, it harnesses the power of the IKEA effect: our very participation leads us to love memes all the more.


One of the more fundamental facts of human psychology is that we can only handle so much information at once, a fact that behavioural scientists like to call the principle of cognitive load.

The principle of cognitive load warns us that brain energy is a finite resource, which quickly depletes when we are asked to concentrate on a difficult task. To conserve this precious mental resource, we are biased to avoid complexity and seek simplicity wherever we can – even if that comes at the cost of accuracy, integrity or our long-term interests.

In light of this need for simplicity, the appeal of memes comes into focus. Memes excel in packaging complicated socio-political commentary and satirical discourse into concise, digestible chunks. Rather than falling into the trap of trying to communicate too many things at once, memes pack their focussed punch by honing in on one singular idea.

Not only that, but memes also benefit from the power of repetition – we see subtle variations of the same meme again and again until their format is burned into our memories. Simplicity, singularity, and consistency are the antidotes to cognitive load.

Memes, then, are a good reminder that less is more in the art of effective communication.


Another notable feature of memes is their capacity to go ‘viral’. Part of what supports this virality is the psychological mechanisms of behavioural contagion. And don’t worry, this kind of contagion doesn’t have anything to do with actual viruses – it refers instead to our tendency to mimic the behaviours of those around us.

For example, after you spot a colleague yawning at their desk on a Monday morning, you may catch yourself yawning moments later. And before you know it, the whole office is at it! That’s behavioural contagion in action. The contagious nature of laughter is another nice example – the laughing track of a sit-com can transform even the most mediocre of jokes into side-splitters.

The human tendency toward mimicry is fuel to the fire of meme culture, burning its way across the internet via retweets, cross-posts and imitation. As such, the major metric of the success of a meme is how many times you’ve seen imitated online. Given this, it is no coincidence that memes have found a fertile home in social media environments where social cohesion and immediate feedback are in-built features.

Part of the appeal of the meme, then, is its ability to tap into our social instincts and desire to ‘fit in’ with the crowd.

What does it all meme?

Using the tools of behavioural science to examine memes has taught us three lessons in the art of human communication that can apply to every type of communication:

  • Keep your messages simple, and favour repetition over reinvention
  • Invite participation and co-creation to help your audience to invest themselves in your product and help your messages land
  • Mimic the language of your audience, and highlight the popularity of the ideas you’re communicating to give them extra power.

With these principles in mind, we asked the creative minds at HRW to create some original market research memes. See how many of these communication principles you can spot in the memes!

By Emma Neville, Senior Behavioural Analyst