The Psychology of Memes

WHAT MAKES A FUNNY meme funny – or a dank meme dank? Why do some memes go viral, while others vanish without a trace? And why is Spongebob Squarepants such a bottomless repository of hilarious meme templates?

The best memes are funny. We all know that. But humour is in the eye of the beholder. Which is why those Minion anti-vaxx memes your aunt adores are as funny as a car crash, but your keenly-observed Tiger King references are the stuff of group-chat legend.


Strong emotions, psychologists argue, make memes go viral. So if something is especially hilarious, it’ll get shared. Ditto heartwarming memes. Ditto political memes. It’s not pretty, but any meme that creates an enhanced feeling of emotional arousal – good or bad! – is going to do well on the open meme marketplace. 

Why do emotionally-charged memes get shared? The concept of ‘emotional contagion’ comes into play here. Psychologists have long known how emotions spread. If you’re smiling, people around you are (slightly) more likely to smile. If you’re moody and glum, they’ll also be sad. The best memes – tapping into strong emotions – spread for precisely this reason. 

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The very essence of psychology – how we sense what’s going on in our minds – is observed via self expression. Internet memes allow us to express ourselves in richer, more colourful ways than ever before. Older ‘memes’ work on the same principal Popular songs, or fashionable haircuts, are all types of meme. Your fresh fade, or the tune you’re whistling, are expressions of your identity.


Indeed, as far as most people are concerned, they ARE your identity. 

Which brings us back to Spongebob. By sharing memes starring the delightful angular ocean-dweller, you signal your awareness of, and participation in, popular culture. You’re young, probably. You like silly animation. Whatever text happens to adorn the image, you’re signalling that you belong to a very particular group. And that other members of the group should listen. 

Understanding this psychology can help us express ourselves better, and more accurately define our identity in the eyes of others.

Memes aren’t just a mode of expression. Memes are the stuff of life. 

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