Culture Memes

By: B. Laszlo Karafiath, PhD

My journey into into human Culture begins in communist Hungary where in 1986 I spoke my truth and was as sent to the principal’s office and nearly got expelled.

It happened on the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of ‘56.  Our teacher held a commemorative discussion about the victims of the  “anti-revolution” (since the communists were the revolutionaries, they branded the heroes of 1956 as anti-revolutionaries, got it?). I am in the classroom listening to the teacher telling lies to my classmates – a version of history that I knew not to be true. How did I know? My father was part of the democratic opposition, so at 14 I knew a lot about recent history. “Dear parents – your son is not an anti-revolutionary.”

I realized there are many ways to perceive the “reality” or there are many constructed realities for how to perceive the world. (And I also developed a very strong sense of anti-authority or anti-power stance.) I had to realize that these people and probably most of the people out there on this fine planet don’t have my best interest at heart –  there is always an agenda. If you don’t trust authority, you can figure out what the agenda is about.

So my education into multiple worldviews started pretty early. For quite a bit of time I have become one of those “coyote” figures or the “court jester” who calls out the “untruth” or the conflicting views of reality. (Nowadays I just smile.)

From there I developed my interest further in an anthropology class in high-school by an experimenting teacher. In college I got into the idea of culture research by way of a global research commissioned by IBM and started by Geert Hofstede back in the 70’s. I got interested in their founding story:  IBM had to realize that ships can’t get into the Bombay harbor without bribing the guide ships. The IBM culture was against bribes in any form… so how do they get the computers into the city? So I wrote my dissertation on cross cultural communication.

I first read about memes  in Dawkins’ Selfish Gene around 1996, and in past 20 years I continued my dive into the deep end of culture research, culture design, memetic engineering. My regulare exercise is to take the meme’s eye view, to see culture in its broadest sense as separate but highly interconnected ecosystem of its own living cultural beings, like gods, technologies, brands, beliefs, or any other type of ideas.

It turns out that you can’t even trust your own thoughts because those thoughts are not your own. No one has their own memes, your thoughts are not yours. Your brain is merely a carrier, “providing space” for the memes, including a lot of contradictory ones. This whole set is held together by a loose network yet it is functioning. I call this network the ego. The ego is the emergent property of these connections. What is closer to the center have bigger influence – like your religion – what is further out from the center – like the brand of your refrigerator – have a lot less influence.

This network of memes called ego is a narrative structure: a story that we tell to ourselves about ourselves. This narrative aims to become an organic unity, and it fits itself among our emotions and actions. This story is about what we did in the past, and it also reflects our individual vision of the future. Our pretence for coherency and consistency creates decisions out of the stories that surround us.

So here we are on the Planet of Humans where we are faced with the potential destruction of the human race on the basis of the culture evolution that the big mind has created with the possibly of imitation and mirror neurons (created as an evolutionary trait). I believe we are facing a situation where we have to do a memetic jiu-jitsu – we have to figure out how to spread good memes. We have to create a new global story about Earth and its inhabitants. Now the ones that are good for the people and planet are not spreading well. Spaceship Earth or Gaia are not good memes. But the memes that are destroying the planet and its ecosystem are spreading rapidly.

How can we create and spread memes that favor the planet and the people on the planet. How do we create a new global story together? How does that happen?

In 2012 we conducted the first meme analysis of global warming with Joe Brewer, my founding partner in Culture Culture Inc. We gathered more than 5000 climate memes, pieces of thoughts from conversation, tweets, Facebook posts containing “climate change” or “global warming”. We coded them for semantic content, and statistically analyzed them to reveal the underlying structure of the discourse around climate. In this exercise we wanted to dig deep and unveil the underlying meme structures when we think about climate change or global warming.

Joseph Campbell talks about underlying structures like the male god versus the female goddess. Since the goddess was herself the planet and her body is the ecosystem –  so a male god can only be outside the goddess, hence outside nature. Coming into the picture from the outside. Which may prevent us now, 3000 years later, from feeling a part of nature – for us nature is the “other thing”.

Another underlying structural meme is population growth. This amazing expansion of the human race on the planet will end soon. Humanity is nearing the end its growth cycle. 10 years ago research showed that in the next 50 years, we will max out around 9 billion and come back to 7 billion humans on Earth. Current research shows we might grow to be 12 billion on the planet. As population size has a huge effect on our thinking (without us even realizing it), a global mindshift from expansion to sustenance will follow the future decline, whenever it will happen.  An expanding population plans, lives and see the world differently than a population going down in the their numbers. Our relationship with the planet will change dramatically as well. This change is coming. But we still need to get through the next 50 years.

We collected more than 5000 climate memes (stand alone thoughts from 2 words to 2 sentences long). Those from Twitter was retweeted at least once. By mapping out the correlations across different memes, we were able to reveal the resonance points that define the underlying psychology of the global warming conversation. These resonance points we call “meme dimensions” in our report are Harmony, Survival, Cooperation, Momentum and Elitism.

The global warming meme is this web of cultural expressions about the human relationship with nature (Harmony), with one another (Cooperation), and the threat of extinction for the human race (Survival) that evokes a wide diversity of sentiments about expert authority and political power (Elitism). This is what appears in the data when it is analyzed for memetic structure.

Seeing that this composition of tensions makes up the global warming meme tells us a great deal about why it won’t go viral. People have built-in protection mechanisms that activate psychologically when threats arise against worldview and identity. In normal circumstances this is a very good thing. A healthy person will not be crippled by anxiety to the point of dysfunction when she comes into contact with a worldview-threatening meme.

And yet the core themes of the global warming meme evoke exactly this kind of crippling anxiety. Are we out of harmony with nature? Is it going to kill off everyone we have ever loved? Does this mean there is something wrong with us? Who has the audacity to claim that humans have the power of gods to shape the planet in such profound ways? Questions like these cause people to react defensively or shut out the conversation entirely. This is why global warming – as it was framed in 2012 — have not gone viral. The culture as an ecosystem does not react well to the climate meme so far. It is psychologically toxic to the human mind and won’t spread outside a small group.

We will have to create a new, healthy climate meme virus through evolutionary memetics. The new meme has to be friendly for the memes of our time. It has to be non-threatening, although offering change. It has to break out from the subculture of global warming. The 2012 version of this thought virus only could engage with those people who cared. Now it has to reach out to and engage the mainstream culture.

The good folks who are engaged in climate communications have to do some good memetic engineering. They have to see the meme dimension and how to play with the resonances to be able inject something new that won’t be rejected by the current culture’s meme structures. It is much like the body rejecting a new organ – or transplanting a plant – you have to get the rules of that ecosystem to have a sense of whether the new thing will flourish.

“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” Lots of memes are failing all the time because the existing culture structure rejects it. So in a sense culture design is about creating the best time for the new memes to spread. Essentially we have to apply new meme-based strategies to create winning sustainability and thrivability memes.

Our approach of doing just that stars with mapping the meme ecosystem. Based on our research we have a deep insight into the web of ideas, beliefs, and stories that shape how memes of climate interacts with the world around it.  This reveals the opportunity landscape for creating change.

In the meme dimensions we essentially uncover the psychological drivers of action and resistance in social behavior in culture.  This reveals the structural resonance between your idea and the practices you want to change.

To create the winning memes we analyze and engineer new memes to activate certain emotions, attitudes, and social values. This is based on the memetic dimensions so the memes we spread will win out over its competitors.

We identified the three main directions where, according to our research, good memes can spread. These are our culture design solutions for spreading environmental memes:


Main theme: A Thriving Future is Possible.

1) Humans are Good for the Planet

Challenge the idea that humans are bad and need to go away.

Let’s spread the belief that humans are a positive force in the world!

2) Humanity is Coming Together

Challenge the idea that humanity is too polarized and fragmented. Let’s spread the belief that people are coming together around the world!

3) We are Equipped for the Crises

Challenge the idea that we don’t know enough to solve this problem. Let’s spread the belief that we have all the technical know-how we need!
Learn more at

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