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Can I offer you a nice meme in these trying times?

Myrick, a professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University, started thinking about how memes about this stressful time period were percolating through the internet and our collective consciousness. She and her colleagues set up an experiment to study whether these pandemic memes helped us cope with stress during quarantine—and their results were published in the American Psychology Association journal Psychology of Popular Media this week.

The researchers recruited around 800 participants with IP addresses based in the US through CloudResearch for the main study. Nearly three-quarters of the participants were white, a little more than half were women, and around a third had a college degree. The ages of participants ranged from 18 to 88, with the average age of around 42.

To prepare for the experiment, Myrick and her team scoured the internet and gathered an initial batch of memes. They ran a test with a separate group of participants who rated how funny, cute, realistic, or popular these memes were. Once they narrowed down a smaller pool of generally popular memes that people thought were either cute or funny, they created two versions of each meme. One would have a caption related to COVID-19, and the other would have the same image, but a different caption that was not related to COVID-19.

In the main study, participants first filled out questions about their stress levels and were then either randomly assigned to view a meme from the test pool, or view a non-meme image. The non-meme image was a screenshot of a news headline about advances in car stereo systems. Then in the meme group, about half saw memes related to COVID, and half saw memes that had the same image but a different caption that was unrelated to COVID.

After viewing their respective images, all participants were asked to provide reactions related to what they saw, and answer questions about how well they thought they were coping with COVID and stress.

Overall, respondents in the COVID meme-viewing group reported more positive emotions. Those more positive emotions were correlated with reports of being able to cope better with the stress in their lives.

Myrick explains that past research has shown that the function of positive emotions is to help us bond with other people and to motivate us. Perhaps the memes allow us to picture ourselves in a similar circumstance, and feel like others can understand what we’re going through.

“It’s important to have the type of media content around you that makes you feel good and helps you connect with other people,” she says. “And it doesn’t have to be a lot.” For example, in this study, they only showed people three memes, and that seemed to provide a little boost.

“That boost can help you then deal with the more stressful information that’s out there, be it about COVID-19 or something you need to do for work or your family,” says Myrick. “That stuff is really important to deal with and engage with. We can’t just avoid all the stressors in our lives.”

Sonya Dal Cin, an associate professor of communication and media at University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study, says that it’s not surprising people would pay more attention and react more to the COVID content. “We’re all living it right now,” she says. “And if you compare the textual content of the meme and non-meme, the COVID-related stuff is probably more relevant to more of the people that they surveyed.”

However, she notes that these results capture a pattern of affects across a group of people. “On average, people who saw these COVID-oriented memes had higher feelings of coping efficacy around COVID—that doesn’t mean that everybody did,” she says. “Some people probably did more than others.”

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