Optimistic meme bias – hopeful ideas are overrepresented


People are more likely to encounter optimistic memes (ideas, thoughts, concepts, arguments, etc.) than pessimistic ones. For example, the subreddits “fun” or “getmotivated” have a lot more readers and posts than the subreddits “anti-natalism” or “depression”.

One might argue (and many do) that this is evidence for 1) a relatively positive reality (the better our world, the more optimistic our thoughts and beliefs about it) and 2) that there exist more happy than sad people (happy people share happy memes, sad people share negative memes).

There are, however, several reasons for why the memesphere (the collection of all memes) is biased towards the positive.

Selection effects – depressing memes are less likely to get shared than positive ones

Imagine there are two equally talented writers, Optimus and Pessimus. Optimus had a lot of luck in his life: he doesn’t have any problems with his physical or mental health, he had loving parents, never lost a loved one, etc. Pessimus, in contrast, suffers from depression and has lost several of his friends and loved ones. Optimus wants to share his optimistic thoughts with the world and Pessimus would like to share his negative thoughts.

Optimus is a lot more productive and motivated than Pessimus. Because his life is going really well, he is highly motivated and creative. Optimus has also an (overly) high opinion of himself and his ideas, which makes him even more productive. Consequently, he is able to write his best-selling book “Why Reality is Awesome and Human Nature is Great” which is read by millions.

In contrast, Pessimus who has seen in the abyss and knows how horrible this world can be, is not able to write more than a few hours per month. He also doubts his abilities and the novelty of his ideas. After ten years, he still hasn’t finished his book “Why This World and Its Inhabitants Suck”. Frustrated, he ends up killing himself.

All in all, over ten million people encountered Optimus’ thoughts which pushes them towards a more optimistic worldview, making them more likely to share these optimistic memes with others. In contrast, only about ten people have heard of Pessimus’ thoughts (namely, his buddies from the mental hospital).

Generally, it seems very plausible to assume that pessimists motivated enough to produce great pieces of art of philosophy are a lot rarer than productive optimists. In turn, most TV series, most movies, and most youtube videos, as well as most books and most posts, were created by (relative) optimists, even if there aren’t that many more optimists than pessimists.

One might extend the thought experiment in the following way: Imagine Optimus has just made an incredibly positive experience – he has fallen in love, made a mystical experience, etc. Imagine, Pessimus made an extremely bad experience – e.g. torture, being betrayed by his best friend and lover, etc.

Optimus will be extremely motivated to tell others about his experience and sing praises about the wonders of this oh-so glorious universe. Pessimus, in contrast, will either end up suffering from debilitating depression until the end of his life or just kill himself right then and there. In both cases, no one will ever hear his story.

How many Pessimuses are out there? Probably hundreds of millions (for example, how many North Korean best-selling authors do you know?) But you’ve never heard of them. All you can hear is Optimus – the Eckhart Tolles and Oprah Winfreys of the world.

Other biases

Other biases are even more obvious, so below just a few sketchy remarks on some of them.

  • Virality. See this study by Berger & Milkman (2009) which shows that people are most likely to share funny or awe-inspiring content and least likely to share sad memes. (However, note that outrageous content is also shared very frequently.)
  • Status & signaling. Evolution has constructed our brains such that we are more motivated to affiliate with successful and high-status people than with sad or depressed people. Successful, high-status folks make for better friends because they can provide you with resources in times of scarcity. Depressed people, in contrast, can’t even look after themselves. This also suggests that people are motivated to signal that they are more happy and successful than they really are. Most people proudly share facebook status updates about their great new job or their great new marriage. There aren’t that many facebook posts about entering a mental hospital or one’s latest stack of antidepressants.
  • Distraction. Many people, if they want to relax or distract themselves, want something funny, light or cute, explaining the ubiquity of funny-cat videos. (Admittedly, there are also very popular shows like Game of Thrones that aren’t exactly love, peace and harmony.)

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