This is the topic of a fascinating book by Aaron Lynch titled “Thought Contagion: how belief spreads through society”. Inspired by the works of Richard Dawkins and Douglas Hofstadter, Lynch looks at memes and how they might get created in different cultural and social contexts and what attributes they possess that determine the mode of belief propagation and reinforcement through those memes. It is a slow, thought-provoking read, so take your time through it – you will be well rewarded.
At a high level, he classifies meme retransmission into seven patterns. Ideas that follow the quantity parental mode of transmission influence their hosts to have more children, thereby spreading the idea quicker. Ones that follow the efficiency parental mode focus on increasing the fraction of children that adopt the parent’s meme. The fastest spreading ones follow the proselytic mode of transmission where they incent the host to transmit the meme to people other than their own children. Ideas that follow the preservational mode make sure they influence their hosts and stay in them for long periods of time. Memes that try to squelch competing ideas follow the adversative mode, influencing their hosts to sabotage or attack competing movements. Ideas that seem well founded increase chances of adoption, thereby utilizing cognitive mode of propagation. Finally, ideas that make the host better off if they adopt them spread through the motivational mode.
Without the context of the book this might sound a bit dry, but the book itself does a great job of memetics and its ties to several parts of the social sciences, including economics, cultural anthropology, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. It goes on to analyze many of the hot button issues of today in the US through the lens of belief propagation to see what aspects of those memes make it easier for them to propagate and find new hosts in today’s world.
It offered a fascinating insight into a different way of looking at the world – not just asking the question of what attributes does a person need to make an idea propagate, but also to see what attributes an idea needs to inspire people to propagate it further. I have not had the fortune of crossing paths with the Dawkins book just yet, but I do hope to read that and see how his book “The Selfish Gene” inspired the field of memetics to form and grow.
Why is this relevant? For those of you that work in marketing and/or consumer/user behavior, understanding what properties an idea needs to make it “infect” and implant itself in a host, and have him/her spread it around would be a good way to do business well. This framework along with the work done in memetics in general allows for that. When combined with the behavioral economics work in the recent past by Dan Ariely and others, this could be a potent force in the hands of the right startup founder!