Memetics of the superiority bias

Memetics studies how and why ideas travel among people from an evolutionary perspective. Christianity, for example, is a hearty meme partially because it contains a reward for those who spread it. It’s safe to assume that if a fallacious story is propagating rapidly and its correction is not, the falsehood is offering its propagators some reward.

Who is being rewarded by these horrible stories of looters? Remarkably, both the audience and the speaker. With gain all around, people long to take on both roles making them vehicles for the falsehood. I propose this “superiority bias” is causing the remarkable popularity of these looters gone wild rumors. Certainly, theft is occurring, but no helicopters have been fired on and no hospitals have been looted.

And the reward? Self satisfaction and honor. Upon hearing of Americans just like us only in a dire situation acting dishonorably, we’re given a great opportunity to display our character. “Oh my, that’s just horrible!” In other words, “I would never do such a thing. I’m such a good person it sickens me to even hear this.” Surely more can be milked of this opportunity than impressing the storyteller. How about a retelling to collect some additional respect points? And this is almost local news, making it acceptable to randomly bring it up. Just start talking about it. Pretend your conversation partner has yet to hear it, even though we all know everyone has heard and blogged it by now. For additional points, suggest that football games should not be played in the wake of a disaster or that trivial things don’t matter now, people are dying! These techniques can’t be applied to ongoing violence problems in Colombia and South Africa; it would be far too obvious that a few vacuous words of disgust are only to put oneself above others.

More revealing is the tone of this disgust. There is one telltale sign that a person thinks he is superior to others: a lack of perplexity with their actions. If I believe someone to be my equal, I assume that like me, he does things for good reasons. If he does something extraordinarily puzzling like shooting at a rescue helicopter, I am extraordinarily confused and my imagination is stretched to figure out what situation would cause me to do this and why. However, if I believe myself fundamentally superior, I’m not at all confused by this. My lessers are just that, lessers. They don’t do things for reasons like me; they’re just mindlessly bad people. Why not pass on stories about their antics to up my social standing?

8 thoughts on “Memetics of the superiority bias

  1. For some people, the reward of perpetuating the meme may stem from a desire to relieve guilt. When disasters happen and people aren’t helping or can’t contribute in some way, they sometimes feel guilty. This is why they will sometimes say some of the things like, “trivial things don’t matter now.” Turning victims into criminals who violently refuse offered help gets these otherwise guilt ridden people off the hook.

    This is likely similar to the mechanism that converts rape victims into girls who were “asking for it by the way they were dressed.”

    It is also rewarding to think of the world as fair and just. It is uncomfortable to think that people who are suffering are just like us. It is easier to distance ourselves when they are Tsunami victims who were living in grass huts or Bosnians who have a very different way of life. Even then it is convenient to find ways to blame them for becoming victims and Sam Kinison made quite an art of this.

    For those closer to home, it’s too easy to be reminded that these may be people just like us. They have similar homes, families, jobs, values and politics. Some of us even eat cajun food. So for these people especially, it may seem natural for the average person to want to believe that God, karma, nature, luck or whatever would somehow protect them and punish the wicked people in the Middle East and China instead. If not, well… surely these people did something to deserve it. Sadam, Gamorah, New Orleans. After all, why didn’t they leave when the city was evacuated? All of the good people must have evacuated so the only people who were left behind were those who deserve their fate. The kind of people who shoot at rescue helicoptors.

  2. There’s also the game of ‘Aint it Awefull’ TA. Reward feeling of smugness and being in a superior in-group . Not too diffierant from what you said.

  3. You should’ve written about mnemonics, they’re far cooler than memes themselves. I’m wondering what article someone shoved at you that contained the word “memetics.”

    Anyway, dogs eat barf solely on Wednesdays, Maybel.

  4. Maybe to some people tradgedy is a culturally emotional response. I too suffer from getting caught up in tradgedy and usually feel and express sympathy before asking questions like, “Why is this happening?” I think you’re spot on with this one. I had a hard time following at a couple of points and found myself re reading it several times before I could get a semblance of firmness on what you were trying to get across.

    Do you think a person can express genuine concern for something that has no effect on them? Like, take for instance all the people that died in Katrina. Some people were all boo hooing and wailing around and stuff. I would like to know how you feel about people that act like they care and how to tell them apart from people that really do. That is, when true tradgedy has occured, not in the case of false story propogation. I mean, maybe its still oneupmanship. Maybe its a sickness of “over feelers” the polar opposite of the “over thinkers”. I dunno, but I’d really like to hear what you have to say, and your telltale signs for identiying disinginous people that claim to be feelers while the benfits are obvious… I’ve found its a great trick best performed and done most often by the socially elite and those who wish they were.

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