Of memes, machines and modified behavior

I’m reading Susans Blackmores book “The Meme Machine”. It starts where Richard Dawkins left off at the end of his seminal book “The Selfish Gene”. Dawkins of course talked mostly about the gene as the “thing” that evolution revolves around but towards the end of his book he speculated about whether ideas, memes, could have traits similar to those of genes when it comes to proliferation.

The Meme Machine

As I understand it, Susan Blackmore claims (a) that there are ideas that can change the behavior of people, (b) that ideas can jump from one person to the next by imitation, and (c) that ideas that facilitate their own proliferation (by appropriately modifying the behavior of the “infected” person and by being easy to imitate) will be the most successful ones in spreading themselves across the human population. Susan Blackmore suggests some successful memes:

  • Altruism which makes one popular and gives many opportunities to spread the idea of altruism even though the genetic advantages of altruism aren’t always obvious.
  • Celibacy (as practiced by e.g. catholic priests) which relieves the practitioner from the mundane duties of raising children and such and leaves him or her with plenty of time to spread the idea of celibacy itself.
  • Religion, especially a religion that strongly promotes missioning and perhaps altruism.

A more light-weight example from my own experience is one of those irritating songs that pop up every summer here in Sweden. They are typically very banal but they infect your brain and after a while you find yourself humming the increasingly annoying tune and infect others with it. Here’s one (click it on your own risk). The link requires Spotify.

Memes and genes don’t always pull in the same direction. It is easy to find human behavior that doesn’t benefit the genes in any way. Suicide bombing comes to mind as a particularly ghastly example.

We can perhaps see organizational change as the “infection” of the organization with memes that change the behavior of the staff, a little bit like the meme of celibacy so fundamentally changes the behavior of the catholic priests; we wish to change the organization by letting it become “host” for the infecting meme. One of my earlier posts might in fact discuss the spreading of memes for such a purpose [1].

What ideas (memes) from meme theory could we then use in our change management activities? A couple of possible things come to mind:

  • Any “change idea” should ideally in itself include the idea of spreading the idea further and be persuasive enough in that respect so that people include such spreading in their altered behavior.
  • The idea must be simple enough to catch on. The song Macarena sticks much easier than a piece by Bela Bartok. This of course does not mean that Macarena is “better” than Allegro Barbaro.

We’ll see if I managed to infect anybody with this particular meme.

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