People With Depression May Find Sad Memes Funnier And More Uplifting

By Matthew Warren

Memes have become an integral part of online communication — and a ripe area for research. Underlying the simplicity of a grainy picture and a few words of text are countless more complex psychological questions. What determines why some memes go viral? How do they shape people’s political or social views? And in what ways do our perceptions of memes change depending on our personalities — or even on our mental health?

To this latter question, at least, a new study in Scientific Reports has some answers. Researchers have found that depressed people seem to enjoy memes with depression-related themes more than non-depressed individuals — a finding that points at differences in how people with mental health difficulties use humour as a coping mechanism.

Past work had found that “positive” humour  (such as jokes designed to make us feel connected or have a good-natured laugh at the funny side of life) is better than “negative” humour (like aggressive teasing or making yourself the butt of a joke) at helping people deal with negative emotions and improve their well-being. But this research had mainly focussed on the general population: it wasn’t clear whether people with depression respond to different kinds of humour in the same way.

To investigate this possibility, Umair Akram at Sheffield Hallam University and colleagues looked at how people with and without depression responded to memes that used negative humour. First, the researchers compiled a set of “depressive” memes, which contained content related to the experience of depression, such as hopelessness or isolation. They also put together a set of neutral memes that were simply “generally humorous social commentaries” without negative content.

Example of a “depressive” meme (left) and a neutral meme (right). Via Akram et al (2020)

The team then asked 154 UK participants to view and rate each meme on various dimensions, including how positive, funny, relatable, and shareable they found it, as well as the extent to which they thought it would make someone with depression feel good. The participants also completed a standard measure of depressive symptoms, as well as a scale that assessed their ability to regulate their own emotions.

For their analysis, the team compared the 56 participants who showed no signs of depression and the 43 who met the criteria for moderately severe or severe depression. These two groups judged the depressive memes as equally negative, but they differed in their other perceptions: those who were depressed found the memes more humorous, relatable and sharable than the non-depressed group. They were also more likely to think that the memes would improve the mood of someone with depression. However, the groups didn’t differ on their assessments of the neutral memes.

While past research has highlighted the benefit of positive humour in helping people cope with emotional distress, the authors say that their findings suggest a negative style of humour may be particularly helpful for people experiencing depression. Although that might be counter-intuitive given how defeatist or pessimistic the memes appear, the team says that depressed individuals might actually get something positive out of them. “Memes visualise the experience and encumbering nature of depressive symptoms, which for many may be difficult to verbalise,” they write. “Therefore, by sharing and observing depressive memes, depressed individuals may theoretically form social and emotional bonds with others which may be perceived as socially supportive.”

The researchers also found statistical evidence that depressed participants had difficulties using emotion regulation strategies (e.g. re-appraising a negative experience in a more positive way), and that these difficulties were a key factor in explaining why they enjoyed depressive memes more. So participants may have also been using the memes to deal with or make light of their experiences, to make up for their lack of other regulation strategies.

More research is obviously needed to explore these effects — it’s unclear whether the depressive memes actually improved people’s mood, for instance, or whether participants just thought they would. But the results do have interesting parallels with another finding we wrote about last year: that people with depression like listening to sad music more than others.  That study found that depressed people find sad music soothing or calming, and report feeling more happiness and less sadness after listening to sad music clips. So it seems that, when it comes to music or humour at least, what we find “positive” is a matter of personal experience and interpretation.

Exploratory study on the role of emotion regulation in perceived valence, humour, and beneficial use of depressive internet memes in depression

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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