New research provides evidence that internet memes can help people cope with the stress of a global pandemic by boosting positive emotions. The findings, published in Psychology of Popular Media, indicate that viewing memes can have psychologically beneficial effects.
“I generally like memes. I think they show how clever people can be and are a neat mix of visual and text-based communication,” said study author Jessica Gall Myrick (@jessmyrick), a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University. “As the pandemic continued on, I noticed that people were creating a lot of memes about COVID-19 and the stressors associated with life during a pandemic. That sparked my curiosity as to if these memes were merely good for a laugh or if they had additional benefits in helping us reframe how we think about the pandemic and how we are coping with it.”
In the study, which was conducted in December of 2020, 748 individuals were randomly assigned to meme or control conditions. Those in the meme condition were shown a set of three images from the internet. Those in the control conditions either viewed a screenshot of a news headline about car stereo systems, plain text (but no image) describing a COVID-related meme, or plain text (but no image) describing a meme unrelated to COVID-19.
After viewing the media for their respective condition, participants rated their reactions to the meme or control text and then reported their levels of anxiety and positive emotions. They also rated how much the media caused them to think about other information they knew about COVID-19, their confidence in their ability to cope with the pandemic and their stress about the disease.
The researchers found viewing memes generated higher levels of positive emotions such as feeling calm, relaxed, content, amused, delighted, cheerful. Participants who experienced these positive emotions, in turn, were more likely to feel confident in their ability to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants who viewed memes with COVID-related captions were also less likely to feel nervous, stressed, and anxious about COVID-19.
“Not all media are bad for our stress levels. Memes are little units of pop culture that can help us relate to other people, feel less isolated, and have a good laugh in the midst of a really stressful time,” Myrick said. “It would benefit us to take stock of what types of messages spread via which types of media channels make us experience different emotions so we can be sure we are not spending too much time consuming any one type of content that might not be helping you meet all of your emotional needs.”
Surprisingly, however, the researchers found that humor responses were unrelated to COVID-19 coping efficacy, which indicates “that different positive emotions may have different effects on coping outcomes.” Memes featuring animals were also rated as cuter than memes with humans, and younger creatures were rated as cuter than adult creatures. But cuteness was negatively associated with coping efficacy.
“This was one experiment and we also need to replicate our work with different groups of participants in order to gain confidence in how generalizable the results may be,” Myrick said. “However, our sample was large and we do feel good about the rigorous methodology we used to choose the memes for the study and to ensure that it was merely the difference in meme caption that influenced the results related to COVID-19 stress and not other factors.”
The study, “Consuming Memes During the COVID Pandemic: Effects of Memes and Meme Type on COVID-Related Stress and Coping Efficacy“, was authored by Jessica Gall Myrick, Robin L. Nabi, and Nicholas J. Eng.