Evolutionary psychology as the basis for meme spreading.

Evolutionary Psychologists often hold this view of humanity that we are all programmed as “status maximizers”. The goal of each individual is to raise their status within a group so that they increase their changes of finding the best mate and lead to reproductive success for the proliferation of his or her genetic line.

This may be true to some extent, but my suspicion is that “status” is really a proxy for something else. When the evolutionary psychologists say that we are status seeking beings, what they really mean is that human brains are often wired with reward pathways for the types of social interactions that coincide with high social standing. This might be a litte longer to say, but the subtlety is worth it because it uncovers something else. There are many different reward pathways in our brains that guide our behavior and these all have different evolved purposes. Now, the favorite passtime of evolutionary psychologists is to tortue their students by overextending this framework to explain all of our actions on the basis of survival or reproductive success. I prefer to take it a different direction…

Evolution has wired human brains and bodies with reward pathways for a variety of different activities. These include biological reinforcement such as caring about your kin, and hedonistic subsistance instincts like eating and procreating. There are even social reward circuits that provide us with pleasing neurotransmitters when we make others happy, or please an authority figure. The interesting part about each of these evolved reward mechanisms is that they can be hijacked.

I will argue, that actually much of cultural evolution plays out on the basis of manipulating our template of reward circuitry. The food parts of culture take advantage of originally designed pathways to reward consumption of salt, sugar and fat. Sports and politics manipulate our tribal instincts for camaraderie  (if there are such instincts).

Ultimately there is not one single reward pathway – like status – that dominates. Human behavior is the result of competing reward pathways along multiple time frames. We seek social status to some extent, take care of kin, indulge hedonistic impulses, and at some point – we can subsist. Personality can largely be identified by seeing to what extent we respond to these various reward pathways (or avoid the opposite of reward).

Our various personalities and reward pathways represent the degree to which any human being will become a likely host for a passing meme. Memes are units of culture that take residence in us because they take advantage of some reward pathway within our brains. Their affinity for us, ability to stick, and likelihood to be retransmitted have much to do with how we find reward from doing so.

For example – if your identity and social standing are based around your sense of humor – then this hypothesis would suggest that you are more likely to seek out and spread “humor memes”. If your identity and social standing are linked to pseudo intelectual ramblings then you probably get something like this blog.

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About livingthememe

engineer and armchair philosopher
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