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When memes collaborate, humans make bad decisions.
Last week, we explored why thinking for yourself is irrational in a world with unlimited information. Humans are unable to process everything thrown at them and are forced to follow other people and embrace ideas in bundles rather than consider each one on its own.
As a result of this process, bad ideas are bundled with good ones. People end up believing (and doing) things that do not make sense on their own but become accepted as part of a bundle. For example, the idea that children should be able to play outdoors without masks is supported by science and, on its own, would seem reasonable to most people.
But many people don't evaluate this idea on its own. Instead, they see it as part of a bundle of other ideas that aren't backed by science or associated with a rival political party. And so, many people over the past year have supported forcing children to wear masks outdoors, even though it served no purpose and imposed an emotional, social, and developmental toll on children.
One reason for this type of bundling is that no one has the time or capacity to evaluate every idea on its own, especially in a world in which we're constantly bombarded with opinions and ideas. It's easier to pick a "side" that seems reasonable and automatically accept whatever that side believes in or, worse, oppose whatever the opposing side believes in.
But there's another reason why bad ideas end up being bundled with good ideas: Good ideas are easier to spread when they're combined with bad ones.
In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to describe ideas and behaviors that spread through imitation. Dawkins saw memes as the cultural parallel to genes:
"Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."
Dawkins said that genes are "selfish" because they constantly seek ways to replicate themselves without considering the organ or person to which they belong. And so are memes: the most successful ones among them are those that replicate themselves into the minds of the largest number of people. And as with genes, memes do not stop to consider whether the ideas they spread are good, bad, reasonable, or unreasonable — all that matters is whether these ideas are likely to be believed and repeated by the people exposed to them.
And it turns out that memes, like genes, are much more likely to be replicated if bundled together with other memes. In the introduction to Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine, Dawkins expanded on this idea:
"Memes, like genes, are selected against the background of other memes in the meme pool. The result is that gangs of mutually compatible memes – coadapted meme complexes or memeplexes – are found cohabiting in individual brains. This is not because selection has chosen them as a group, but because each separate member of the group tends to be favored when its environment happens to be dominated by the others."
This may sound abstract, so let me use a familiar example. In 2003, the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq. As President Bush said at the time, the purpose of the invasion was to "disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people." The invasion resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans and their allies. And it cost America around $2 trillion.
In retrospect, most people — from both sides of the aisle — agree that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary. But even in real-time, it was not a very appealing or reasonable idea on its own. In 2003, if the American public had been asked to evaluate the reasons, purpose, and plans for the Iraq War on their own, most people — including most congress members — would have probably voted against it.
So why did people support it? Because the "memes" that supported the war in Iraq were bundled with other memes that did make (some) sense. Let me explain: The invasion of Iraq was sold to the public with claims that:
- Iraq is a threat to America,
- Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction, and
- Saddam Hussain is America's enemy.
We now know that some of these claims were not even true. But even if they were 100% true, would these arguments on their own carry enough weight to launch America into an all our war? Probably not.
The world is full of tyrannies with weapons of mass destruction and leaders that hate America. And America itself (and the Bush family itself) had a "history of violence" with Iraq and yet did not launch an all-out war against Saddam Hussain until 2003.
What was so special in 2003? The memeplex — the existing ideas in people's heads. Bush did not launch the Iraq war in isolation. He did so following the September 11 attacks and launching an earlier war in/on Afghanistan. By the time Bush started "selling" the Iraq war, the American public already had other ideas (memes) established in its mind, including:
- Muslim terrorists attacked our country from the Middle East,
- We are at war with "these people," and
- We cannot sit on our hands and wait for the next attack; we must bring the war to "them" before they bring it back to us.
It is much easier to "sell" the ideas that led to a war in Iraq to a person who already believes in the ideas that led to the war in Afghanistan. Saddam kind of looks like Bin Laden (he's Muslim, has facial hair, and has an Arabic name). Iraq kind of looks like Afghanistan (it's sandy, backward, and somewhere between China and Europe). And a possible chemical attack is kind of like what Al Qaeda did on September 11 (killing a lot of innocent people).
The new ideas (war in Iraq) were more likely to sway people who already held the old ideas. And in turn, the war in Iraq also helped perpetuate the war in Afghanistan because both merged into a single "War on Terror" that is too important to end. The arguments and ideas that supported each war on its own coalesced into a bundle of ideas — a memeplex — that were stronger together. As Susan Blackmore explains in The Meme Machine:
"The essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own."
This is exactly what happened in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. The first war (which was terrible in itself) had some grounding in reality and was a response to an actual attack. The second war had far less grounding in reality and was a preemptive strike based on a supposed (or imagined) attack in the future.
The arguments for the second war benefitted from the established ideas that supported the first war, and both wars "benefitted" from having their ideas bundled together. And, most importantly, the legitimacy of the war in Afghanistan made it illegitimate to question the war in Iraq. Ultimately, the memes that supported both wars replicated themselves and remained appealing — and the Iraqi, Afghan, and American people paid the price.
A similar interplay of memes and ideas is also visible in the current war in Ukraine. Both the Russians and Ukrainians are eager to portray their adversaries as "Nazis." By doing so, they are trying to bundle ideas that support their current position with ideas that are already entrenched in the public's mind.
Many in the Russian public are proud of their victory against the Nazis in World War II and have learned about how a sizable minority of Ukrainians collaborated with their Nazi occupiers. And so, Putin's call the "Denazify" Ukraine may seem reasonable to them, even if it has little to do with his actual intentions. In parallel, Ukrainian leaders emphasized President Zelensky's Jewish Heritage and an alleged bombing of the Holocaust memorial site in Babyn Yar in order to portray Putin as the new Hitler and get NATO to join the war.
Putin is bad enough even without being Hitler, and he deserves to pay a price for his aggression. And Ukraine is a victim that deserves our sympathy and assistance, even if it is not experiencing a second Holocaust. But the bundling of new and old ideas increases the likelihood that leaders and voters on both sides of the conflict will get carried away and embrace some very bad ideas only because these ideas are bundled with a few good ones.