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What Makes a Good Meme? What Makes a Bad Meme?

This question has been repeatedly asked since the birth of memes. Memes have been around for as long as there were humans, and probably before that too. But what exactly is a good meme? The best answer to the first part would be: “Who knows”. There are many definitions, but Wikipedia sums it up quite well:

What Makes a Good Meme? What Makes a Bad Meme?

This graph shows that if you want to know whether or not you have created a good meme, then simply go back in time enough years so that your memory isn’t reliable anymore. If someone from the future came back and described your meme to you, would you understand why they said it was a good or a bad one? These two questions can be answered together simply by using the theory of evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary Psychology

All living beings are adapted to their environment, but not all adaptations were conserved. This is particularly true with humans, as we have never been in one place long enough for evolution to act upon us consistently. The human mind can adapt to different environments very quickly and easily. It is because of this that norms change so often, and why what you find cool today will be looked down upon tomorrow (unless it’s slam poetry). Memes from Meme Scout are the result of our minds adapting to new experiences over many generations. Our brains produce new ideas constantly, which help us become more successful in surviving and reproducing. Some of the ideas we produce turn out to be useful, while others do not. Memes are simply some of these ideas that had a positive effect on our survival, and therefore passed down from one generation to the next (Dawkins, 2003).

It is important to understand those good memes can go extinct like any other species. There has never been a single meme that was universally liked by everyone in its environment. If there were, then it would possess all of its environments’ adaptive traits and variations (Dawkins). So why did some memes persist while others did not? Well, probably because people who appreciated them survived better than those who did not? How does this relate back to what makes a good or bad meme? Well, it would be quite simple to say something along the lines of: A meme that survived is a good one.

But this would not really give us enough information to actually know how we can come up with a formula for making memes that will be successful in any environment. Fortunately, all living things have many traits and variations that go into their success and survival. So, if we could simply identify which traits/variants are most common among the most successful memes created by humans, then we would have our formula. And, as luck may have it (or not), there already exists such a formula…

The Memetics Model

This model was created after years of studying what makes a good meme successful or failed according to evolutionary psychology. This model is currently recognized by the majority of meme scientists (whoever they are, I don’t know). It states that there are six traits/variants that contribute to whether or not a meme will be successful.

1) Psychological Suitability

A meme must make sense with human psychology in order for it to be effective. If it is too strange, then most people won’t understand it and therefore not appreciate it enough to share with others like them (Chiarella et al., 2017). There has been much research done on this topic as well as the psychological principles behind it all, but this article does not do those topics justice. For those interested in psychology, I highly recommend checking out The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. For those not interested in psychology (which is probably most people), all you really need to know is that memes are more successful when they follow human psychological tendencies (Chiarella et al., 2017).

2) Drive-Reducing Capacity

A good meme must do more than simply make sense with human psychology if it is to be popular. There are many, many memes which have seemed sensible enough to the public eye until they actually were released to the public at large. Then, all of a sudden, people switched their preference towards making fun of them instead of using them as intended (this was most likely due to the psychological suit being too low for its drive-reducing capacity [Chiarella et al., 2017]). This is not a good thing to happen to your meme, and it will most likely result in its extinction. The best way to prevent this from happening is simply making sure that the meme you’re creating has enough drive reducing capacity for it to be adapted into society (Chiarella et al., 2017).


It is more effective to create a good meme that makes sense with human psychology AND has high drive-reducing capacity. This means that understanding aspects of psychology like anxiety, fear, etc. will make your meme more successful (because it makes sense to humans), and having an effective structure/design/etc. will also make your meme more successful (because people won’t be embarrassed to use it in public).

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