Feelings spread through groups of people, right? Not long ago I was riding in the car with my wife when another driver behaved aggressively as we sped down the freeway. It was frightening and maddening. As the other car cut her off, my spouse reacted irritably. In hopes of calming her I pointed out that the dangerous driver must have been feeling pretty crummy to act as he did. His rage threatened to infect us, almost like a psychic virus. I suggested we build up immunity and try to keep his poison out of our minds. It isn’t often that a husband can change his wife’s thinking, but on this occasion my words helped a little.
So I’ve been thinking about this ever since. Consider the classic story of the boss yelling at the manager, the manager punishing a worker, the worker going home and insulting his wife, the wife scolding the child, and the child kicking the cat. The angst that drove the boss to act out gets propagated and ends up hurting the hapless family pet.
We see variations on this all the time. In every stock market crash negativity spreads so rapidly that securities can lose half their value in a day. Terrorist attacks are intended to inject paranoia and despair into a population, and they often succeed. Arguably, the massive US debt that now weighs down our economy resulted from the (second) Iraq war, which never could have been launched save for 9/11. Psychic toxins spread swiftly and do great harm.
I’m reminded of Richard Dawkin’s concept of a meme: “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins used the example of religion, which transmits highly specific ideas about God and morality. He proposed that as they are passed from person to person, concepts replicate with occasional modification; over time the most ‘successful’ (i.e., most adopted) memes come to dominate group thought.
Perhaps the phenomena I’m discussing here could be referred to as affemes, or ‘affective memes.’ The …