Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same
Published in The Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of
Information Transmission 1998 Vol 2.
Summary:Following a thematic overview of social contagion
research, this paper examines the question of whether this
established field of social science and the nascent discipline of
memetics can be usefully understood as two sides of the same coin.
It is suggested that social contagion research, currently lacking a
conceptual framework or organising principle, may be characterised
as a body of evidence without theory. Conversely, it is suggested
that memetics, now over two decades old but yet to be
operationalised, may be characterised as a body of theory without
evidence. The article concludes by proposing a memetic theory of
social contagion, arguing that social contagion research and
memetics are indeed two sides of the same social epidemiological
coin, and ends with a call for their synthesis into a comprehensive
body of theoretically informed research.
The Contagion Phenomenon
Two centuries ago, a wave of
suicides swept across Europe as if the very act of suicide was
somehow infectious. Shortly before their untimely deaths, many of
the suicide victims had come into contact with Johann von Goethe's
tragic tale "The Sorrows of Young Werther," in which the hero,
Werther, himself commits suicide. In an attempt to stem what was
seen as a rising tide of imitative suicides, anxious authorities
banned the book in several regions in Europe (Phillips 1974, Marsden
During the two hundred years that have followed the publication
and subsequent censorship of Goethe’s novel, social scientific
research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes,
beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if
they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to
be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is
the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread
through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of
measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational
The term contagion (kentâ-jen) itself has its roots in the
Latin word contagio, and quite literally means "from touch".
Contagion therefore refers to a process of transmission by touch or
contact. The Microsoft Dictionary (Microsoft 1997) defines contagion
"transmission of a disease by direct contact with an
infected person or object; a disease or poison transmitted in this
way; the means of transmission; the transmission of an emotional
state, e.g. excitement; a harmful influence."
From this definition, contagion refers to 1) the social
transmission, by contact, of biological disease, and 2) the social
transmission, by contact, of sociocultural artefacts or states.
The contagion concept first became popular as both a descriptive
and explanatory device for social, as opposed to biological,
phenomena in the late 19th century France, notably through the work
of James Mark Baldwin (1894), Gabriel Tarde (1903) and Gustave Le
Bon (1895). Empirical research into the phenomenon did not, however,
begin until the 1950s. This more recent research has unequivocally
established the fact of the social contagion phenomenon, and has
identified its operation in a number of areas of social life. The
implications of this social contagion research are radical: The
evidence suggests that under certain circumstances, mere 'touch' or
'contact' with culture appears to be a sufficient condition for
social transmission to occur.
Despite this promising start,
social contagion research has evolved into a field that is now
unorganised, disparate and incoherent, lacking both an organising
principle and a conceptual framework (Levy and Nail 1993).
There is, in fact, a complete absence of agreement among
researchers as to the particular mechanism that underlies social
contagion. This lack of consensus has lead to a proliferation of
definitions of the phenomenon which range from the vague to the
plain contradictory. For example, the Penguin Dictionary of
Psychology (Reber 1995) defines contagion simply as the "spread of
an activity or a mood through a group". The Concise Oxford
Dictionary of Sociology (Marshall 1994) adopts a similarly vague
definition of "ideas moving rapidly through a group." Other
definitions, whilst more extensive, provide little in the way of
increased clarity or utility. The Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology
(Sutherland 1995) defines contagion as "the spread of ideas,
feelings and, some think, neuroses through a community or group by
suggestion, gossip, imitation etc." Some definitions attempt to
clarify the concept in terms of a putative uncritical and
non-rational mode of inheritance/infection. Thus, The Encyclopaedic
Dictionary of Psychology (Furnham 1983) defines contagion as a
process and form of collective excitement "in which emotions and
behavioural patterns spread rapidly and are accepted uncritically by
the members of a collective." In contrast, other definitions make no
mention of this uncritical nature of inheritance but specify instead
the perception of non-intentionality in transmission (e.g. Levy and
Nail 1993) such that contagion becomes the "spread of affect,
attitude or behaviour from Person A (“the initiator") to person B
(“the "recipient") where the recipient does not perceive an
intentional influence attempt on the part of the initiator." A very
different definition of contagion has also been proposed, referring
to neither the non-intentional nature of transmission, nor the
uncritical nature of inheritance, but rather to a putative
phenomenon of disinhibition. Thus, Wheeler (1966) states that:
"If the set of test conditions T1 exists, then contagion has
occurred if and only if Person X (the observer) performs behaviour
N (BN) where T1 is specified as follows: a) A set of operations
has been performed on Person X which is known to produce
instigation toward BN in members of the class to which X belongs:
b) BN exists in the response repertoire of X, and there are no
physical restraints or barriers to prevent the performance of BN;
c) X is not performing BN; d) X observes the performance of BN by
Person Y (the model)." (p. 180)
Together, these very different definitions of contagion have been
operationalised to produce studies that have little in common except
the observable phenomenon of spread by contact. Most of these insist
on the presence of a number of internal states and mechanisms
(intentionality, approach-avoidance, conflict etc) for the process
to count as ‘true’, as opposed to merely ‘apparent’ contagion.
However, these various qualifications have not only contributed to
the confused nature of social contagion research, but have also
undermined the central rationale of the metaphor; that observable
culture spreads as if it has contagious properties.
One of the clearest and most inclusive definitions of social
contagion is that proposed by The Handbook of Social Psychology
(Lindzey and Aronsson 1985). This definition refrains from positing
as necessary internal states. Instead social contagion is held to be
"the spread of affect or behaviour from one crowd participant to
another; one person serves as the stimulus for the imitative actions
of another." Such a definition has the advantage of focusing and
clarifying the observable contagion phenomenon, whatever internal
states may or may not be present. It should be noted however that
there is no reason for the contagion phenomenon to be restricted to
the crowd scenario, to be sure, the mass media allows for the
possibility of contagion through dispersed collectivities.
Social Scientific Research on Social Contagion
the varied definitions of contagion, the empirical research has
tended to confirm that the hypothesis that human behaviour clusters
in both space and time even in the absence of coercion and
rationale. This tendency towards homogeneity has been identified in
a number of types of behaviour using one or more of three basic
approaches. In the case of dispersed collectivities or masses,
evidence for and against the social contagion phenomenon has been
typically drawn from correlational studies where aggregate
statistics on exposure and infection are correlated, such as media
reporting on suicide stories and suicide rates (e.g. Phillips 1974,
Marsden 1998). In the case of local collectivities such as crowds,
research methods have included field studies using participant or
non-participant observation (e.g. Reicher 1984 on Bristol riots), or
formal experimental studies under laboratory conditions (e.g.
Freedman, Birsky and Cavoukian 1980). Bringing the disparate data
from the various methods together, meta-analyses of the contagion
phenomenon have also been conducted (e.g. Levy and Nail 1993).
Substantively, social contagion research can be broken down into
two major areas, studies investigating emotional contagion (the
spread of mood and affect through populations by simple exposure)
and studies investigating behavioural contagion (the spread of
behaviours through populations by simple exposure). Behavioural
contagion research can itself be broken down into six broad areas,
based on the nature of the behaviour that is spread; hysterical
contagions, deliberate self-harm contagions, contagions of
aggression, rule violation contagions, consumer behaviour
contagions, and financial contagions.
A hysterical contagion is "the dissemination of a set of symptoms
among a population in which no manifest basis for the symptoms may
be established". (Kerckhoff and Back 1968). Also known as contagious
psychogenic illness (Cohen, Colligan, Wester II and Smith 1978),
hysterical contagions involve the spread by contact of reported
symptoms and experiences usually associated with clinical hysteria
(hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, fainting etc) in the absence of a
biological contagion. The paradigmatic example of hysterical
contagion is the "June Bug" incident that occurred in a US textile
factory in 1962, where 62 factory workers reported having been
bitten by a mythical bug that ‘caused’ symptoms such as numbness and
nausea (Kerckhoff and Back 1968). More recently, Colligan and Murphy
(1982) have analysed a further 23 examples of hysterical contagion -
"the collective occurrence of a set of physical symptoms and related
beliefs among two or more individuals in the absence of an
identifiable pathogen", and found that it was the verbal reporting
of the symptoms that spread in a contagious-like manner rather than
the symptoms themselves. Their research also largely confirmed
Kerckhoff and Back's theory that those susceptible to hysterical
contagion were suffering from intra-psychic stress. More recently
still, Showalter (1997) has suggested that chronic fatigue, Gulf war
and multiple personality syndromes might spread by contagion, and
Pfefferbaum and Pfefferbaum (1998) have argued post-traumatic stress
disorder also spreads by contagion. The hallucinatory component of
hysterical contagion may also account for the spread of supernatural
phenomena such as the sightings of Diana ghosts following the death
of the princess in 1997 (Marsden 1997), as well as reports of UFO
sightings and alien abductions (Houran and Lange 1996, Showalter
A second class of behaviour that appears to spread through
populations by contagion is rule breaking or rule violation
behaviour. Evidence has tended to support the thesis that an
individual's exposure to rule violations increases their likelihood
of engaging in similar or identical behaviour. Such rule violation
contagions have been identified in teenage smoking (Ritter and
Holmes 1969, Rowe, Chassin, Presson, Edwards and Sherman 1992),
speeding (Connolly and Aberg 1993), substance abuse (Ennett,
Flewelling, Lindrooth and Norton 1997), delinquency (Jones 1998),
youth sex (Rodgers and Rowe 1993) and criminality (Jones and Jones
A third class of behaviour, which has been the focus of empirical
social contagion research, is deliberate self-harm (DSH), of which
suicide is the paradigmatic example. Specifically, research has
shown that suicide rates and other examples of DSH vary
proportionally to the extensity, intensity and content of exposure,
both in local and dispersed collectivities (Phillips 1974, 1980,
1982, Stack 1987, 1990, Higgins and Range 1996, Gould 1990, 1996,
Gould, Wallenstein and Kleinman 1987, Gould, Wallenstein and
Davidson 1989, see Marsden 1998 for a ‘memetic’ overview). Contagion
is now an accepted risk factor in suicide research, and the
overwhelming evidence has prompted the establishment of several
government programmes to minimise the effects of suicide contagion.
Another, very different focus of social contagion research has
been the financial contagion phenomenon, manifested in the behaviour
of stock markets which lurch from state to state as a result of
selling panics and buying frenzies that sweep across the globe.
Financial contagion research has tended to investigate the various
factors that may exacerbate and contribute to the phenomenon such as
analysis techniques, the level and nature of information available
to dealers, and social communication networks (e.g. Orlean 1992,
Temzelides 1997, Lux 1998).
A fifth area of contagion research has investigated the
contagious properties of consumer behaviour which sometimes results
in the spread of consumer fashions and fads through populations in a
manner more indicative of an influenza epidemic than rational
behaviour (Marsden in press). This phenomenon has prompted the
development of deterministic and stochastic models with good
predictive power that forecast both sales realisation and new
product adoption patterns based on the ‘infectiousness’ of consumer
goods (Bass, Mahajan and Muller 1990, Rashevsky 1939, 1951, Rapoport
1983, Rogers 1995).
A sixth focus of social contagion research has been the contagion
of aggressive behaviour, a phenomenon that has been shown to operate
in both local and dispersed collectivities. Whilst much of this
research has been of a descriptive nature within transitory and
unpredictable angry crowds (mobs) (Bandura 1973, Reicher 1984,
Lachman 1996), results have been supported with experimental
evidence (Bandura, Ross and Ross 1963, Wheeler and Caggiula 1966,
Wheeler and Levine 1967, Wheeler and Smith 1967, Goethals and
Perlstein 1978). In dispersed collectivities, where the contagion of
aggression is mediated by the mass media, research has focused on
measuring exposure and infection rates and testing for correlations.
(Atkin, Greenberg, Korzenny, and McDermott 1979, Sheehan 1983,
Finally, social contagion research has not only restricted itself
to the spread of behaviours, a significant number of studies have
identified a variety of emotional contagions. The emotional
contagion phenomenon was originally defined by McDougall (1920) as
"the principle of direct induction of emotion by way of the
primitive sympathetic response" and more recently by Sullins (1991)
as "the process by which individuals seem to catch the "mood" of
those around them". The proposed mechanism for this spread of mood
is an automatic and continuous human tendency to synchronise facial
expressions, voices, and postures with others in the immediate
environment (Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson 1993). These behavioural
cues then appear to trigger the appropriate emotions in a system of
feedback. The Emotional Contagion Scale (Doherty 1997) has been
recently developed and validated to assist further research in this
area, which has already identified various examples of emotional
contagion including mood (Hsee, Hatfield and Chemtob 1992), anxiety
(Behnke, Sawyer and King 1994), fear (Gump and Kulik 1997),
appreciation (Freedman and Perlick 1979) and enjoyment (Freedman et
The Social Contagion Phenomenon Explained
Whilst the vast majority of social contagion research
has demonstrated the existence and voracity of the empirical
phenomenon, the theoretical implications of the results have not
been addressed. The results of contagion research suggest that just
as we do not choose to be infected with, and pass on, biological
contagions, we often behave as if we have little control over the
culture we become infected with and consequently spread. Such an
observation undermines the traditional understanding of the human
subject as an autonomous agent whose action is defined by individual
intentionality and rational evaluation. Whilst we may like to
believe that we consciously and rationally decide on how to respond
to situations, social contagion evidence suggests that some of the
time this is simply not the case. Rather than generating and
‘having’ beliefs, emotions and behaviours, social contagion research
suggests that, in some very real sense, those beliefs, emotions and
behaviours ‘have’ us.
The failure of mainstream social science to take this implication
of social contagion evidence seriously is certainly in part due to
the above-mentioned disorganised and incoherent state of the field.
However, the failure is also probably due to a fundamental
incompatibility between the concept of social contagion and the
Cartesian voluntarism implicit in much social science. In fact,
standard explanations of social contagion can be characterised by an
almost desperate attempt to restore irreducible individual agency
and rational action to the phenomenon.
In trying to explain away the social contagion phenomenon, two
types of theory have been developed. Firstly, a number of theories
suggest that the spread of homogeneity is a consequence of conscious
and deliberate imitation in situations usually defined by
uncertainty or ambiguity.
Secondly, contagion has been accounted for by putative latent
homogeneities in terms of prior motivations that antecede the
An example of the first type of explanation is Emergent Norm
Theory (e.g. Turner 1964) which states that the spread of behaviour
through a population is not by contagion (contact) but is the result
of conscious and deliberate attempts to adhere to norms and rules
emerging out of complex and subtle interaction within
collectivities. Similarly Social Learning Theory (e.g. Bandura 1971,
1986) holds that homogeneity is the result of the conscious and
deliberate imitation that takes place when individuals are presented
with uncertain and ambiguous situations. When we are unsure of how
to react to a stimulus or a situation, these theories suggest that
we actively look to others for guidance and consciously imitate
An example of the second type of explanation is Convergence
Theory (e.g. Turner and Killian 1987) which suggests that
homogeneity and clustering is not a result of contagion but the
result of prior shared motivations that cause collectivities to
converge in the first place. From this perspective, similarities
cause collectivities and not vice versa. A similar explanation is
provided by Disinhibition Theory (e.g. Freud 1922, Redl 1949,
Wheeler 1966, Ritter and Holmes 1969, Levy and Nail 1993) which
states that contagion is "essentially imitation mediated by
restraint release due to observing another perform an action that
the individual is in conflict about performing himself" (Freedman
1982). In other words, from this perspective, behaviours are not
transmitted by contact; rather inhibited behaviours (sometimes
unconscious and "primitive") that are already held in an
individual’s behavioural repertoire are simply released. Thus,
homogeneity spreads as a result of the intra-psychic conflict
resolution that occurs through social evidence. Another variation on
the 'prior motivations' theme is Deindividuation Theory (e.g. Diener
1976, 1979, Festinger, Pepitone and Newcombe 1952, Zimbardo 1969).
This theory holds that the anonymous nature of collectivities can
engender a restraint reduction in individuals. This sense of
anonymity is held to cause a reduction in the individual's sense of
personal accountability and responsibility, allowing them to engage
in behaviour from which they might otherwise abstain. When anonymity
leads to restraint reduction of similar behaviours within
individuals within a collectivity, this produces the appearance of
Both the ‘conscious choice’ and ‘prior motivations’ theories may
explain the social contagion phenomenon in some circumstances, but
none of them can comprehensively explain the phenomenon. Indeed, it
is difficult to see how any of the theories could provide a credible
explanation of either emotional or hysterical contagion, except by
maintaining that we either choose illnesses or emotional states
based on those that are around us, or worse we have hidden desires
to be ill, angry or anxious! Social contagion stretches Cartesian
rational action theory to such a degree that the latter becomes an
untenable explanation of the former. Valiant attempts at squeezing
irreducible individual agency and rational evaluation into the
phenomenon are simply at odds with data. The evidence shows that we
inherit and transmit behaviours, emotions, beliefs and religions not
through rational choice but contagion. Does this rejection of
rational choice/action theories mean that social contagion is a
homeless body of research, a body of evidence with no theoretical
home to go to? No, I think there is an alternative paradigm that has
the potential to explain more of the data more of the time. That
paradigm is memetics.
The Memetic Stance
Social theorists often use the
language of architecture, they speak of theory building, laying
theoretical foundations, or constructing theoretical edifices. This
is useful language, it indicates the step by step, laborious nature
of their enterprise. Meme theory is no different in this respect,
many problems still have to be resolved within the new paradigm
(Rose 1998). However, meme theory is developed enough to be
operationalised conservatively by adopting what could reasonably be
called a memetic stance. Not a fully blown theory, the memetic
stance is more of a way of looking a the world, a set of guiding
principles, a useful heuristic, based on some hopefully important
insight into the nature of the social world. Whether the memetic
stance turns out to be an explanatory device in an evolutionary
extension of folk psychology, or a proper theory of mind where memes
are internally instantiated in the neural networks of our brains is
an issue that will one day have to be resolved empirically. For now,
by adopting the memetic stance, these issues may be bracketed, and
research can proceed based on the utility of this ontologically
So what exactly is the memetic stance? The memetic stance states
that human condition is minimally defined by two selective processes
operating in two different substrates, the biological and social
(Marsden forthcoming). This is because the necessary conditions for
the evolutionary loop of replication, variation and selection are
present in the two substrates. This is not contentious in itself,
what is more contentious is that the memetic stance sees these
processes operating at the level of what is being replicated, that
is, the gene and the meme. Thus, the memetic stance involves taking
a meme’s-eye perspective and understanding of the social world,
thinking not in terms of selfish genes, but selfish memes. Taking
this memetic stance has allowed researchers to explain the spread of
non-rational behaviour in terms of the fitness of that behaviour
itself. Examples include altruism (Allison 1992, 1993, Blackmore
forthcoming) chain letters (Goodenough and Dawkins 1994, Hofstadter
1995, Allison 1993), chain e-mail (Jones 1995) religions and cults
(Dawkins 1993, Lynch 1996 and Cowley 1997), political revolutions
and war (Vajk 1989), religious scriptures (Pyper 1997) Usenet
content (Best 1997), management practices (Price and Shaw 1996,
1998), media representations, (Rushkoff 1994), urban legends (Gross
1996) and consumer behaviour (Marsden in press, Brodie 1996).
The memetic stance suggests that design in the social world is at
least partly a product of the evolutionary loop of replication,
variation and selection operating on culture, or more specifically
cultural instructions coding for behaviour (Cloak 1975, Marsden
forthcoming). It is not necessary to invoke conscious choice or
rational evaluation by an entity - homuncular, divine or otherwise -
standing miraculously outside evolution to explain design; given
enough iterations, natural selection will inexorably and inevitably
give rise to design.
Once we take the memetic stance, features of the world that are
difficult to explain from the orthodoxy of traditional social
science become non-miraculous and eminently explicable. The memetic
stance can explain not only apparent design in the social world, but
importantly it can also explain phenomena that seem to negate the
omnipresence of individual agency in human affairs. Put simply, the
memetic stance states that the reason why some social behaviour
doesn't seem to make sense from the perspective of the individual is
because we are looking at that behaviour at the wrong level. We are
taking an anthropocentric or homuncular view of a social world that
was created at least in part at a memetic level. Trying to explain
the social world from the perspective of the individual is like
trying to explain the movements of a car without reference to the
driver. The movements of a car can be rationally described,
explained and understood in terms of the car's own needs as
(somewhat circuitous) trips from petrol pump to petrol pump.
However, by ignoring the driver much of what is observed makes no
sense at all. The same argument holds for the social world, just as
we can explain much of our (somewhat circuitous) social behaviour in
terms of the needs of the meme-vehicle (individual), much of what is
interesting about that behaviour is overlooked. By taking the
memetic stance we can account for what happens when the needs of an
individual cannot explain behaviour, the equivalent of all the
non-petrol seeking activity of a car, and this stance provides an
evolutionary rationale for explaining why the social contagion
Social Contagion from the Memetic Stance
memetic stance involves, to use an overused concept, a true Kuhnian
paradigm shift; just as evolution in the biological world evolves
according to what is better (not best) for the gene in its
environment, so too does the social world evolve according to what
is better for the meme. The memetic stance involves describing,
explaining and understanding social behaviour from this meme's-eye
perspective. From the memetic stance “What makes this person want to
do x?" becomes “What is it about x that makes people want to do it?”
Social contagion can be explained by the memetic stance because
culture has an independent evolutionary dynamic that is derived from
the genetically evolved human capacity and predisposition to
replicate culture (see Flinn 1997 for a review). Because social
learning is an evolved psychological trait, it follows that we have
an evolved predisposition to replicating the behaviour of those
around us. Successful social contagions are those elements of
culture that operate as both stimulus and response, and that are
adapted to the evolved architecture of the human brain. No
homunculus need be invoked, only evoked imitation.
In this way, the memetic stance deconstructs the homunculus into
what can be understood as replicating cultural instructions (memes).
This opens up an exciting research programme for memetics, as
contagion is no longer understood as a metaphor but an evolutionary
process. Social contagion research, from the memetic stance could
focus on the particular characteristics that render behaviours and
emotions. It could also investigate why certain people are immune to
certain contagions, or how they develop resistance to contagion, or
conversely what makes certain people particularly susceptible to
contagion, and others not.
Similarly, memetic research could look for the limiting factors
of the contagion phenomenon in both time and space. How, for
example, is social contagion bounded? Can social contagion epidemics
burn themselves out and if so, how? How does a contagious epidemic
become an endemic trait in the social world? Is it possible to
quarantine areas exposed to contagion, or quarantine those who have
been infected? Can individuals be vaccinated against contagion? How
long is the incubation period, that is, the time from exposure to
infection? What are the primary vectors of contagions, that is, what
are the primary channels of infection? Are contagions specific or
diffuse? These are all questions that are more or less precluded in
a traditional paradigm dominated by a Cartesian homuncularism and
rational action theory which essentially deny the existence of the
social contagion phenomenon. By deconstructing the homunculus into a
web of replicating instructions, the memetic stance allows the
social contagion phenomenon to become a theoretically informed
Memetics and Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same
Taking the memetic stance allows research to proceed
with the objective of explaining the spread of non-rational
behaviour in terms of the fitness of that behaviour itself. Until
recently, such memetic research has been of a largely non-rigorous
and anecdotal nature. Despite offering the exciting prospect of
being an autonomous social theory that is compatible and coherent
with, but not reducible to, our knowledge of the biological world,
the emerging discipline of memetics has yet to produce any concrete
results. This is essentially because the issue of how to
successfully operationalise the emerging paradigm has yet to be
addressed; memeticists have yet to exploit their innovative
analytical framework to build a body of theoretically informed
It is here that the body of social contagion research may be of
particular use to memetics, offering itself up as a rich source of
empirical evidence, whilst offering important methodological lessons
and inspiration for future research. For example, the emotional
contagion scale developed by Doherty (1997) could be used by
memeticists, as could the field studies, correlational and
experimental methods that have been exploited by social contagion
researchers. More generally, memeticists could develop the social
contagion research tradition of using the substrate neutral tools of
epidemiology to assist their research programme. These tools could
be adapted to provide useful information about differential
incidence and prevalence of evolving cultural traits, as well as
structure of endemic and epidemic features of society.
The use of epidemiological tools would have the advantage of
allowing memetic research to proceed without making any ontological
claims as to the nature or status of what exactly is being spread.
Epidemiology is not the study of the inheritance of particular
diseases or pathologies per se; rather it is the study of the
distribution and pattern of the measurable effects of infection.
Memetics qua social epidemiology might aspire to a similar goal. In
the same way that causal mechanisms in the epidemiology of disease
depend on, and vary with, the particular pathology that is being
studied, taking the memetic stance does not require that social
patterns be reduced to any one particular selective mechanism.
Epidemiology may proceed independently of the aetiology of social
products being researched; no assumptions about the heterogeneity or
homogeneity of causal mechanisms are
The emerging paradigm of
memetics and the established tradition of social contagion research
do not simply have much to learn from each other, they are in fact
two sides of the same social epidemiological coin, the former a
theory-rich version of the latter, and the latter an evidence-rich
version of the former. Taking the memetic stance is a radical move,
but there are some wheels, particularly of the methodological
variety, that just don't need to be reinvented by memeticists,
because they can already be found in social contagion research.
Equally, memetics brings to the social contagion table an innovative
conceptual framework with an important evolutionary component that
the latter currently lacks. By integrating social contagion research
and the memetic paradigm we would allow for the development a robust
body of theoretically informed empirical research. In doing this we
will be laying one more foundation for the long overdue Kuhnian
paradigm shift that will finally see the integration of social
science within a broader evolutionary paradigm.
Dr Paul Marsden is a research psychologist at the London School
The author would like to thank members of Meme Lab, Sue
Blackmore, Nick Rose and Derek Gatherer, for discussing and
reviewing earlier drafts of this article and for their useful
constructive criticism. The usual qualifier of course applies.
Allison, P. (1992) Cultural relatedness
under oblique and horizontal transmission rules. Ethology and
Sociobiology, 13, 3: 153-169.
Allison, P. (1993) The cultural evolution of beneficent norms.
Social Forces, 71, 2: 279-301.
Atkin, C.K., Greenberg, B.S., Korzenny, F., and McDermott, S.
(1979) Selective exposure to televised violence. Journal of
Broadcasting, 23, 1: 5-13.
Baldwin, J. M. (1894). Imitation: A chapter in the natural
history of consciousness. Mind, 3: 25-55.
Bandura, A. (1971) Social Learning Theory. N.Y. General Learning
Bandura, A. (1973) Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. NJ.
Bandura, A. (1986) Social Foundations of Thought and Action.
Engelwood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice-Hall.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., and Ross, S. (1963) Imitations of
aggressive film-mediated models. Journal of Abnormal and Social
Psychology, 66: 3-11.
Bass, F.M., Mahajan, V., and Muller, E. (1990) New product
diffusion models in marketing: A review and directions for research.
Journal of Marketing, 54, 1: 1-26.
Behnke, P.R., Sawyer, C.R., and King, P.E. (1994) Contagion
theory and the communication of public speaking state anxiety.
Communication Education, 43, 3: 246-251.
Best, M.L. (1997) Models for interacting populations of memes:
Competition and niche behaviour. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary
Models of Information Transmission 1 at http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/1997/vol1/best_ml.html.
Blackmore, S. (forthcoming) The Meme Machine. OUP.
Brodie, R. (1996) Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme.
USA. Integral Press.
Cloak F.T. (1975) Is a cultural ethology possible? Human Ecology,
Cohen, B.G.F., Colligan, M.J., Wester II, W., and Smith, M.J.
(1978, January) An investigation of job satisfaction factors in an
incident of mass psychogenic illness at the workplace. Occupational
Health Nursing: 10-16.
Colligan, M.J., and Murphy, L.R. (1982) A review of mass
psychogenic illness in work settings. In M.J. Colligan, J.W.
Pennebaker, and L.R. Murphy (eds.) Mass Psychogenic Illness (pp.
171-182) NJ. Erlbaum.
Connolly, T. and Aberg, L. (1993) Some contagion models of
speeding. Accident Analysis and Prevention 25, 1: 57-66.
Cowley, G (1997) Viruses of the mind: How odd ideas survive.
Newsweek April 14: 14.
Dawkins, R. (1993) Viruses of the mind. In B. Dahlbohm (ed.)
Dennett and his Critics (pp.13-27) Blackwell Publishers.
Diener, E. (1976) Effects of prior destructive behavior,
anonymity, and group presence on deindividuation and aggression.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33: 462-470.
Diener, E. (1979) Deindividuation, self-awareness and
disinhibition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37:
Doherty, R.W. (1997) The Emotional Contagion Scale: A measure of
individual differences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 21, 2:
Ennett, S.T., Flewelling, R.L., Lindrooth, R.C., and Norton, E.C.
(1997) School and neighborhood characteristics associated with
school rates of alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana use. Journal of
Health and Social Behavior 38, 1: 55-71.
Festinger, L., Pepitone, A., and Newcombe, T. (1952) Some
consequences of deindividuation in a group. Journal of Abnormal and
Social Psychology, 47: 382-389.
Flinn, M.V. (1997) Culture and the evolution of social learning.
Evolution and Human Behavior, 18: 23-67.
Freedman, J.L. (1982) Theories of Contagion as they relate to
mass psychogenic illness in M.J. Colligan, J.W. Pennebaker, and L.R.
Murphy (eds.) Mass Psychogenic Illness, (pp171-182) N.J:
Freedman, J.L., and Perlick, D. (1979) Crowding, contagion and
laughter. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 15: 295-303.
Freedman, J.L., Birsky, J. and Cavoukian, A. (1980) Environmental
determinants of behavioral contagion: Density and number. Basic and
Applied Social Psychology, 1: 155-161.
Freud, S.  (1959) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the
Ego. London. Norton.
Furnham, A. (1983) Contagion, In R. Harre and R. Lamb (eds.) The
Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Psychology (p119).
Goethals, G.R. and Perlstein, A.L. (1978) Level of instigation
and model similarity as determinants of aggressive behavior.
Aggressive Behavior, 4: 115-124.
Goodenough, O. R. and Dawkins, R. (1994) The "St. Jude" mind
virus. Nature 371: 23-24.
Gould, M.S., Wallenstein, S., and
Kleinman, M. (1987) A study of time-space clustering of suicide.
Final report. Atlanta, Georgia: Centers for Disease Control.
Gould, M.S., Wallenstein, S., and Davidson, L. (1989) Suicide
clusters: A critical review. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior
Gould, M.S. (1990) Suicide clusters and media exposure. In S.J.
Blumenthal and D.I. Kupfer (eds.), Suicide Over the Life Cycle.
Washington, DC. American Psychiatric Press.
Gould M.S. (1996) Suicide Contagion. At American Foundation for
Suicide Prevention Website http://www.afsp.org/research/gould.html.
Gross, D. (1996) The Blue Star Meme: Applying Natural Selection
Thinking to Urban Legends. http://www.lycaeum.org/drugs/other/tattoo/meme.html.
Gump, B.B., and Kulik, J.A. (1997) Stress, affiliation and
emotional contagion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
72, 2: 305-319.
Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T. and Rapson, R.L. (1993) Emotional
Higgins, L and Range, L.M. (1996) Does information that a suicide
victim was psychiatrically disturbed reduce the likelihood of
contagion? Journal of Applied Social Psychology 26, 9: 781-785.
Hofstadter D.R. (1985) Metamagical Themes: Questions for the
Essence of Mind and Pattern. Basic Books.
Houran, J., and Lange, R. (1996) Hauntings and poltergeist-like
episodes as a confluence of conventional phenomena: A general
hypothesis. Perceptual and Motor Skill 83, 2: 1307-1316.
Hsee, C.K., Hatfield, E., and Chemtob, C. (1992) Assessments of
the emotional states of others - conscious judgements versus
emotional contagion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 11,
Jones, L (1995) Good Times Virus Hoax.
(1998) Behavioral contagion and official delinquency: Epidemic
course in adolescence. Social Biology, 45, 1-2: 134-142.
Jones, M.B., and Jones, D.R. (1995) Preferred pathways of
behavioural contagion. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 29, 3:
Kerckhoff, A.C. and Back, K.W. (1968) The June Bug: A Study in
Hysterical Contagion. N.Y. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Lachman, S.J. (1996) Psychological perspective for a theory of
behavior during riots. Psychological Reports, 79, 3: 739-744.
Le Bon, G.  1903 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.
London. T. Fisher Unwin.
Levy, D.A., and Nail, P.R. (1993) Contagion: A theoretical and
empirical review and reconceptualization. Genetic, Social and
General Psychology Monographs ,119: 235-183.
Lindzey, G. and Aronsson, E. (1985) (eds.) Handbook of Social
Psychology: Group Psychology and the Phenomena of Interaction (3rd
Ed.) Lawrence Erlbaum Ass.
Lux, T (1998) The socio-dynamics of speculative markets:
interacting agents, chaos, and the fat tails of return distribution.
Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 33, 2: 143-165.
Lynch A. (1996) Thought Contagion. How Belief Spreads Through
Society. The New Science of Memes. Basic Books.
Marsden, P.S. (1997) Crash Contagion. Unpublished Paper delivered
at University of Sussex Conference Death and Diana.
Marsden, P.S. (1998) Operationalising memetics - Suicide, the
Werther effect, and the work of David P. Phillips. Proceedings of
the 15th International Congress on Cybernetics, Namur, Belgium.
Marsden, P.S. (forthcoming) The selectionist paradigm: More
implications for sociology. Accepted for publication by Sociological
Research Online (subject to revision) October 1998.
Marsden, P.S. (in press) Memetics as a new paradigm for
understanding customer behaviour. Marketing Intelligence and
Marshall, G. (1994) (ed.) Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology.
McDougall, W. (1920) The Group Mind. N.Y. Knickerbocker Press.
Microsoft (1997) Microsoft Bookshelf Basics; Chambers Dictionary
in Microsoft Office 1997.
Orlean, A. (1992) Contagion of opinion in financial markets.
Revue Economique, 43, 4: 685-698.
Pfefferbaum, B. and Pfefferbaum, R.L. (1998) Contagion in stress
- An infectious disease model for posttraumatic stress in children.
Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 7, 1: 183.
Phillips, D.P. (1974) The influence of suggestion on suicide:
Substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect.
American Sociological Review, 39, (Jun), 340-354.
Phillips, D.P. (1980) Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass
media: Towards a theory of imitation and suggestion. Social Forces
58, 4: 1000-1024.
Phillips, D.P. (1982) The impact of fictional television stories
on U.S. adult fatalities: New evidence on the effect of the mass
media on violence. American Journal of Sociology, 87, 6:
Phillips, D.P. (1983) The impact of mass media violence on U.S.
homicides. American Sociological Review, 48 (Aug): 560-568.
Price, I. and Shaw, R. (1996) The learning organisation meme:
Emergence of a management replicator or parrots, patterns and
performance. In Proceedings of the third ECLO Conference, Copenhagen
Price, I. and Shaw, R. (1998) Shifting the Patterns: Breaching
the Memetic Codes of Corporate Performance. UK. Management Books
Pyper, H.S. (1997) The Bible and memetics. Unpublished Paper
presented at The Bible into Culture Colloquium, Sheffield 9-12 April
Rapoport, A. (1983) Mathematical Models in the Social and
Behavioral Sciences. NY. John Wiley and Sons.
Rashevsky, N. (1939) Mathematical Biophysics. Chicago. University
of Chicago Press.
Rashevsky, N. (1951) Mathematical Biology of Social Behavior.
Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
Reber, A.S. (ed.) (1995) The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology
(2nd ed.) Penguin.
Redl, F (1949) The phenomenon of contagion and "shock effect" in
group therapy. In K.R. Eissler (ed.), Searchlights on Delinquency
(pp. 315-128) N.Y. International Universities Press.
Reicher, S.D. (1984) The St. Paul's riot: An explanation of the
limits of crowd action in terms of a social identity model. European
Journal of Social Psychology, 14: 1-21.
Ritter, E.H. and Holmes, D.S. (1969) Behavioral contagion: Its
occurrence as a function of differential restraint reduction.
Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 3: 242-246.
Rodgers, J.L. and Rowe, D.C. (1993) Social contagion and
adolescent sexual-behavior - a developmental EMOSA model.
Psychological Review, 100, 3: 479-510.
Rogers, E. M. (1995) The Diffusion of Innovations (4th ed). New
York. The Free Press.
Rose, N. (1998) Controversies in meme theory. Journal of Memetics
- Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 2. http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/1998/vol2/rose_n.html.
Rowe, D.C., Chassin, L., Presson, C.C., Edwards, D. and Sherman,
S.J. (1992) An epidemic model of adolescent cigarette-smoking.
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22, 4: 261-285.
Rushkoff, D., (1994) Media Virus. N.Y. Ballantine.
P.W. (1983) Age trends and the correlates of children's television
viewing. Australian Journal of Psychology, 35: 417-431.
Showalter, E. (1997) Hystories. N.Y. Columbia University Press.
Stack, S. (1987) Celebrities and suicide: A taxonomy and
analysis, 1948-1983. American Sociological Review 52 (Jun):
Stack, S. (1990) Media impacts on suicide. In D. Lester, Current
Concepts of Suicide 107-120. Philadelphia. Charles Press.
Sullins, E.S. (1991) Emotional contagion revisited: Effects of
social comparison and expressive style on mood convergence.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17: 166-174.
Sutherland, S. (ed.) (1995) Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology.
U.K. Macmillan Press Ltd.
Tarde, G.  (1963) The Laws of Imitation. Mass. Peter
Temzelides, T. (1997) Evolution, coordination, and banking
panics. Journal of Monetary Economics 40, 1: 163-183.
Turner, R.H. (1964) Collective behaviour. In R.E.L. Faris (ed.)
Handbook of Modern Sociology (pp. 382-425) Chicago. Rand
Turner, R.H. and Killian, L.M.(1987) Collective Behavior (3rd
ed.) NJ. Prentice-Hall.
Vajk, P. (1989) Memetics: Ideas and their transmission.
Unpublished paper presented to Outlook at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/2424/memetics.html.
Wheeler, L. (1966) Towards a theory of behavioural contagion.
Psychological Review, 73: 179-192.
Wheeler, L. and Caggiula, A.R. (1966) The contagion of
aggression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2: 1-10.
Wheeler, L. and Levine, L. (1967) Observer-model similarity in
the contagion of aggression. Sociometry, 30: 41-49.
Wheeler, L. and Smith, S. (1967) Censure of the model in the
contagion of aggression. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 6: 93-98.
Zimbardo, P.G. (1969) The human choice: Individuation, reason and
order versus deindividuation, impulse and chaos. In N.L. Arnold and
D. Levine (eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp.237-308)
Lincoln. University of Nebraska