How Viral Ideas Hook Us


Stories that are false can circle the
internet for years. For example: Did you know that a
megachurch called Temple Baptist was built on land that cost fifty seven cents, the amount donated by a ragged little girl
in Sunday school? Did you hear about the guy who died in
his sleep killed by his own farts? Can you believe that Elvis Presley said: “The only thing a nigger can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes”? And guess what, scholars at the Smithsonian have uncovered writings of Nostradamus that relate to Barack Obama? These statements are all hogwash, but each of them is the heart of a viral email which means each has some quality that
makes people forward it over and over and over. The first is
the kind of message commonly known as “glurge”– Too-sweet-to-be-true stories that nevertheless give many of us a warm feeling or even chills. The second
makes us laugh and piques our sense of morbid curiosity. The third appeals to our contradictory fascination with celebrities which includes a desire to tear them down. The fourth
appeals to our yearning for magic. These stories are all drawn from the urban-legends fact-finding site, `Snopes`.
What is the common theme? Emotional arousal — something they share with viral religions. Comparing religion to chain-mail may seem crass, but the kinship is real. Religion and viral stories have a variety of reproductive strategies. Like computer viruses, many chain-mail and social media messages contain explicit copy-me commands. Some emails promise us good luck if we forward the message to 10 people before the day is up, or a week of happiness or even prosperity. Some threaten us with bad luck if we
don’t. A religion may promise eternal life or eternal torture. Some viral message try to shame us: — if you care about your friends you’ll pass
on this information about cervical cancer or Visa fraud or brown recluse spiders. But most of the time the pressure is more subtle. Most viral messages and images simply contain something that makes us want to pass them on: They make us laugh or feel validated and righteous. Many delight us. A few tap our sense of mystery or transcendence. At different points, religions make use of each of these. In the field of medicine, epidemiologists study patterns of viral transmission.
You may have glimpsed the tools of their trade
in the thriller movie `Contagion`. Experts can track, for example, how an
influenza virus spreads across one region, and how it jumps from country to country
in the bodies of specific carriers. Based on the way infections fan-out they
may even be able to identify the epicenter the disease. Some of the tools of epidemiology are now being applied to study the spread of viral ideas including religions. Scholars debate
whether viral ideas can be thought of as discrete, self-replicating information modules
— known as memes. Are humans passive hosts?
Or do our brains take a more active role in reconstructing contagious ideas
from hazy blueprints? Either way the ideas get transmitted through
established social networks. They spread horizontally within a generation and vertically from generation to generation, exploiting our desire to share what we
know and to learn from each other. That is why specific religions are
concentrated in one part of the world or another and children tend to have the same
religion of their parents. For developmental reasons, children are
particularly susceptible to simply accepting the ideas of their parents and community. If a parent says: Stoves burn you, cars can squish you and bathing keeps you from getting itchy, kids tend to do best if they simply trust what they are told. Nature has designed kids to be credulous. This allows them to learn from the
experience of their elders in an efficient way. It helps them to
acquire valuable information and adaptive
cultural norms. It is also why evangelical parents are
encouraged to convert their children young. Research on identity development shows that if children can be contained within an enveloping religious community
through their transition into young adulthood, few will ever leave. As the ancient writer said: “Bring up a child in the way he should go:
and when he is old he will not depart from it.” In the past, religions spread largely by edict and conquest. This is how Christianity spread
throughout the Roman Empire and into the Americas. Today though, religion is perceived as an individual choice, and religions must gain share by attracting adherents. That is why today the religions that are gaining mind share are those that have good marketing and what economists call appealing club goods or member privileges.
In the current environment, Christianity has been able to produce offshoots that need no edict or conquest. Significantly, religions that are growing right now are ones with strong copy-me-commands.
Evangelical Christianity is centered on the Great Commission: Go
into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. The Roman Catholic Church latched
onto the strategy of competitive breeding — keep women
home, sanctify a high birth rate — and Evangelicals in the so-called `quiverfull movement` have began promoting this form of copy-me-command as part of their own competitive mix.
By contrast, modernist Christianity is more often
centered on what Christians call the Great Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. In a changing environment, a virus or
religion must have the ability to mutate and adapt. As knowledge grows, some varieties of
Christianity accept new scientific or historical
findings and reinterpret their sacred texts and traditions in light of our best
understanding of the world around us. Tangentially, this is the approach taken
by Tibetan Buddhism. The 14th Dalai Lama has said: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then
Buddhism will have to change. “In my view, science and Buddhism share
the search for the truth and for understanding reality. “By learning from science about aspects of reality where its
understanding maybe more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.” The need to adapt may seem at odds with the recent success of fundamentalism, but in actual fact, fundamentalism is an
adaptation to a changing world. Rather than revising dogmas, fundamentalists have developed a stronger defense against
external threats. An extreme example of this can be seen in the case of the Amish or Hasidic Jews. The belief system
sustains itself relatively unchanged by prompting people to recreate the
ancestral environment in which the beliefs crystallized. But most theological fundamentalists have a more hybrid approach: parents protect their children from
external influence in home-schools or parochial schools, but don’t mind accessing creationist
materials from interactive websites. Mega-churches provide in-house social
services that include pop psychology. Advocacy organizations promote hierarchy and sexism but are willing to have women and
children and spokespersons for those views. Creationists play up the risk of doubt and inquiry, and yet use pseudo-scientific
findings to make their arguments convincing. Fundamentalist populations resist
ideological change but they have learned to exploit popular culture,
best business practices, new technologies, and even scholarship itself
to maintain the survival of their beliefs. Since the virus and host fit together like lock and key, understanding viral ideas
helps us to understand the human mind and vice versa. Retro-viruses and influenza
mutate rapidly, which makes it hard to develop
immunizations against them. On the spectrum of religions,
Christianity shows a similar flexibility, regularly spinning off new sects,
denominations and even non-denominational renegades. Christianity has adapted to a broad
range of human minds and cultures — a strategy that has resulted in success
beyond the wildest visions of the patriarchs.

89 thoughts on “How Viral Ideas Hook Us

  • I feel that a stronger distinction needs to be made between positive and negative drives here. Sharing something because you found it amusing, and sharing something because you're threatened shouldn't be clumped up just because you're "sharing something". Love, fear and just plain ego, while often working in tandem, are nevertheless separate. Regardless, it's a solid video, and actually got me thinking a bit. Analogies tend to be very useful for seeing something in a new light.

  • I get what you're trying to say and I do think TrustingDoubt recognizes that people share things for different reasons,but saying "love, fear and ego work in tandem, yet they're separate" kinda makes no sense.
    Also – many people work with very best intentions and think that what helped them to feel better or overcome their issues will work for others. Same with spreading unconfirmed gossip that some people might take a bit too seriously. So a positive drive can still have a negative impact.

  • As a general rule, virus of a specific host use to mutate and allow long term survival: Influenza, HIV and Hepatitis C do so.

    An unexpected switch in the host, lead to an disadvantageous situation for both the virus and their hosts, Ebola and Tick-Borne Encephalitis virus are examples of this. I cannot visualize a similar situation of the second situation.

  • Very nice. Thanks for sharing.

    As to viral ideas, we are seeing an increase of people with no religious affiliation. As more people discuss the false nature of religion, others become comfortable with the idea that they don't need to believe either.

  • It's always great to see something new from you pop up in my subscriptions box.

    This is a fantastic video and it's exactly the type of thing people need to see.

  • There are things, I understand but find hard to accept. Like the fact that new videos don't come out much more often from TrustingDoubt. πŸ™‚
    Thoughtful, well-informed, respectful and unambiguous. They must take much work to make, but the results are always a pleasure to watch.
    Thank you.

  • I think I can elaborate a bit. What I mean to say is that if you love someone, you can obviously fear losing that love, and if you've got quite an ego you likely love something about yourself or what you do, and so on. These things tend to naturally involve each other, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't examine them individually. As for the latter part of your message, I do agree, but I think this is a discussion more about the process than the results. Fear can sometimes save you, after all.

  • I loved the video, but I would say that the spread of christianity was less by warfare than by peaceful appeal. The first Christians by all accounts were pacifist, and their spead was basically within the confines of a pre-existing empire. The pacifist nature often offended the emperors or public pagan officials. It wasn't until Contantine the Christianity took on a more bellicose nature. The Muslim movement was bellicose from the onset, by doctrine.

  • Excellent video. On countless occasions I've tried to explain to people of faith that your environment and parentage plays a huge role in which brand of religion you will be born into. Many of them fail to grasp that concept, and tell me, no matter where they were born, they would find Jesus.

  • And the actual spreading of Christianity didn't really BEGIN until Constantine gave his thumbs up and from that point onward till I'd say the end of the Spanish Inquisition, Christianity spread MORE from force and threat and upbringing than from any peaceful means. Christianity wasn't even a group until really nearer the end of the 1st century so you have that time from say 100 CE to about 313 CE when it was spreading around various pts of the Mediterranean by "peaceful" means.

  • Wonderful job on this. I just wish ALL of my theist friends would watch this and get a clue. I need more reasonable and logical friends around me. It is so depressing to witness so many brainwashed folks who refuse to allow their critical mind to venture into that dogmatic compartment and question it. Fear is a strong tool for keeping the flock/herd in their specific pasture.

  • If you like learning about early christianity's spread, I recommend a book by biblical historian Philip Jenkins titled Jesus Wars. Check it out and see just how nasty those early christians were to each other as well as the other sects in their midst.

  • No the early christians weren't peaceful nor of one mind on the subject of their beliefs and fought bloody battles over the various ideologies and there were many. Read the book Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins, a well respected biblical historian. It was a brutal time of power struggles and warrior monks.

  • Haven't read that but then I haven't read most books. Yes, Christians were most cruel to people who said they were also Christian BUT didn't believe exactly as the ones in control. sad, sad times for the world. Just read up on the inquisitions. tragic.

  • I just participated in our local Freethinker Society "Ask An Atheist" event. Not many questions, but a few proselitsing, trying to change our minds. They hit a brick wall when asked too many pointed questions that shake their foundation…then they become defensive and wander away.

  • The early Christians of the 1st 2nd and 3rd century were mostly the poor. It was originally criticized for its anti-establishment stance, and its pacifism. One only needed to burn incense to the emporer and denounce the religion to avoid persecution.

    There was no official cannon until Constantine ordered one at the Council of Nicea. The religion had a large following but no political power. By the time of Hypatia the power structure had ossified, and Christianity became the political oppressor.

  • I believe (as speculation with some evidence) That the Christ character was literary invention of Paul & the Gospel authors. In Paul's letters & the first gospel author Matthew, you see the Jesus character as a departure from the old testament authors. The story is a political polemic against Roman occupiers and their vassel subjects the Sanhedren. Jesus is not victorious by armies, but escapes the torturous injustice by rising from the grave. Its a story of a self sacrificing Godhead superhero.

  • Mark is the first gospel, btw. And yes, the Jesus character is fiction built upon lots of other inputs. But I wouldn't say Paul invented Jesus. His letters seem pretty legit. The genuine ones, of course. It seems that Paul was seeing Jesus in the pages of the OT and his Jesus was a sparse, bare-bones son of Yahweh who was never on earth but killed in heaven by the demons long b4 Paul's day. A VERY different Jesus than that of the Gentile-created gospels. but yeah, gospels are fiction.

  • The fact that the early church patriarchs fought each other brutally including murdering each other, constantly vying for power and authority, employing spies on each other and the monk warriors that some of the bishops employed to attack the adherents of rival sects is astounding.

  • Maybe you misinterpreted my point. The theists at the event, becoming defensive and wandering away, proves that the fear is strong and that their lack of ability to critique their stance, goes with my point.

  • These are some of the few videos that get an automatic thumbs up. Hopefully they will keep giving me a reason to thumb up the video before watching it.
    Haven't been let down so far.

  • I'd like to read that book but I guess I can imagine that all that stuff did happen. You'd have thought god would settle the matter instead of the iron age antics of men. ah well. he works in mysterious ways.

  • Oh boy, are you going to teach us why religion is wrong!!?? This is great. You're so smart. You're a really smart guy. We're all really smart guys. We're the new mandarins. The enemies of progress are rural whites, inbred cousin-fucking buck tooth neanderthals, we're enlightened and above all that. WE'RE LIKE FUCKING STAR TREK!!!

  • Wow, another atheistkult channel that sounds exactly as redundant, boring, pompous and goofy as the other 5,000 cookie cutter channels.

    If I had the ability to thumb this garbage down 3 times, I'd do it once for the banality of it all, again for the extremely tenuous analogy that is about on par as equivocating all atheists with communism, and one final time for actually sounding about as dumb as the average fundy when trying to comprehend the bible.

  • Just Christianity under scrutiny by these new age communist ratbags. Not Islam of course, as it's their tool against our free western societies. Also you conveniently left out that Christianity, before it was stolen by Rome, spread throughout the middle east without edict or conquest, and that Muslims later killed most of them. Heck for all we know you could be some witch or Lucifer worshiper.

  • Could you point me to some of those 5,000 channels? I've seen quite a few of these types of channels, but not nearly 5,000. I'd like to watch more.

  • Is that you in that General Questions live stream vid on your channel? The one where you sit there staring at presumably a monitor for like a whole minute w/o saying anything? You look as intelligent as your comment.

  • "The early Christians of the 1st 2nd and 3rd century were mostly the poor."

    But then, most all people were poor. So it's kind of like saying most Americans live in America. Thank you, Mr. Obvious. hahah

    But my pt last time was only that Christianity has BEEN the oppressor for WAY longer that it has been oppressed (and even the oppressions of that time have been GREATLY exaggerated). So for about 200 years, they grew here and there. for 1500 years they oppressed whoever opposed them.

  • "Send this to ten people in the next hour or your wish will become opposite!"

    In that case, I'll wish to lose all my money and then leave my friends alone.

  • This should be shown on mainstream US TV. Maybe soon it will when religions and the 'American Dream' are seen for what they are – destruction through ignorance. Consumption for solace and hedonism.
    Humanity as a whole hasn't progressed much further than the bronze age philosophically speaking – the technology has though and giving atom bombs to ignorant superstitionists is not good for the planet.
    We have a great deal of wealth but only leverage it by associating it with money. This must stop

  • "Christianity, before it was stolen by Rome, spread throughout the middle east without edict or conquest" Ummm…. no. You need to stop getting your information off of propaganda noise making sites… Go to the library and ask someone there to point you towards the encyclopedias.

  • Your videos are always amazing and informative. You keep out doing yourself with each new submission. Keep up the good work. I always look forward to seeing your next video.

  • I wonder if the spread of memes is to do with chunking and the 'packaged' nature of the information contained therein – basically saying that whilst a meme may have layers to it, it's still a single concept, but it adheres to a number of self-definitional nodes simultaneously.

  • nah, just some them at the pet store lol just like religion, if you got the money, you too can own the turtle sex.

  • Very much liked the content of the video, but in my opinion it could have done less audio editing especially soothing out the voice. Personally i would like a more normal sounding human voice rather than a trans-kind of voice with background tones. Being a psychologist it might be helpful professionally but i can also grasp the idea without it.

  • I love your beautiful, soft, academic approach. Smart, well composed and thoroughly informative. I’m glad Qillz sent me. Subscribed!

  • @TrustingDoubt Based on what you talked about in this segment, do you think islam is similarly adaptive (aside from only throwing off a couple offshoots) or do you think it as a religion could be easier to deal with than christianity?

  • Mormonism is the epitome of the "Copy me" gene.

    I had recently come to thinking of ideas as living organisms with 'genes' made up of strings of propositional statements, like the copy me.

    This concept also helps me understand how humans and animals (that can learn) differ in this respect. In both, these propositional organisms can mutate, and go through selection (generally based around consistency). However, human ideas have the one difference that makes them alive; they can reproduce through language.

    Animal ideas on the other hand, can't reproduce, but like the concept of chemical evolution which precedes biological evolution, they can be recreated by their environment.

  • Whilst I basically agree with what you are saying, I find it unbelievable that you don't attack one of the craziest religions of all time – ISLAM!

  • Interesting point, however you can't neglect the fact that every person will read religion in their own way, according to their own weakness. All religion but one is shallow and does mostly seek to praise the self/control others. However Biblical Christianity says to deny the self and deny empty pleasures, says you aren't a good person and you need to change. That if you are changed for the better it's only because God allowed it, these are not self-praising principles. Also, all these claims assume all religions are superficial and neglect that they may have true teachings or morals, that they coincide with justice. Yes the nature of almost all religions are self-praising, but that isn't their appeal, their appeal is truth and justice. Areligious appeal is self-praising, not religious appeal.

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