As social media has become more popular over the last decade, a new form of internet humor has emerged: memes. Memes are amusing, often relatable media popularized through widespread online sharing.
Memes are pervasive on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Ever-changing pop-culture comedy establishes a unique camaraderie among members of younger generations, who frequently create, share, and reference popular posts. This peculiar juvenile norm perplexes adults, who are then equally confused when their questions are met with the answer “okay, boomer.” Psychology can verify the seemingly nonsensical humor of memes.
In a 2010 TEDx talk titled “What makes things funny,” humor researcher Peter McGraw proposed a concept that may explain the psychology of memes. The Benign Violation Theory asserts that humor occurs when a situation is simultaneously both a violation of established norms –including moral, social, and linguistic standards– and harmless to those involved.
For example, a purely benign scenario, such as a person descending a flight of stairs, is ordinary and therefore not funny. A purely destructive situation is not funny; likewise, if the person were to plummet down the stairs and become injured, onlookers would be concerned rather than amused. However, if the individual fell down the stairs and was unhurt, the mistake, according to the theory, would be perceived as comical.
The humorous nature of memes aligns with the Benign Violation Theory. The posts address relatable situations but oppose societal norms by exaggerating the accompanying emotions and reactions. Memes are usually in the format of a captioned image; the caption describes a common experience while the image depicts an applicable, yet amplified, response.
The Benign Violation Theory can be applied to the above meme, which describes a struggle relatable to many students: procrastination. It approaches an everyday issue in a non-offensive manner, rendering it relatively harmless. While the caption is simple in its description of the unspoken companionship of two students, the image embodies exhaustion. By exaggerating the emotion experienced by the students and depicting non-student characters, the image violates the norm introduced by the caption.
Though young people are often ridiculed for their unique humor, memes are, at least according to Peter McGraw and me, justifiably funny. While memes have evolved over recent years, from the classic “Bad Luck Brian” to “Area 51” to “Baby Yoda,” we can all admit that memes are something of a cultural staple.
Copyright Abigail Morris 2019