The Blue Star Meme

Applying Natural Selection Thinking to Urban Legends

by Dave Gross

How does an urban legend like the "Blue Star" LSD Tattoo legend spread, why do people believe it and want to encourage other people to believe it, and what does this say about the rest of the information we encounter and form opinions about? Perhaps surprisingly, insights from Darwin's discovery of natural selection may help us answer these questions.

The principle of natural selection is best known for its success in explaining the evolution and variety of life. But it is not restricted in its application to living things. In short,

natural selection will take place, favoring those individuals with the greater ability to successfully reproduce versions of themselves that also successfully reproduce. Individuals with greater reproductive success will extend the reach of their form into future generations, at the expense of less-successful individuals.

If the individuals in the population reproduce with imperfect fidelity - if not all of the reproductions are perfect reproductions - there may occasionally be novel forms of individuals that have advantages over individuals in the existing population.

The genes that code for attributes of biological organisms fit this model well - the model was, after all, developed to explain the emergence and variety of biological organisms - but in fact the model is more general than this. Any group of replicators that satisfies the above criteria will be subject to natural selection - whether they are biological in nature or not.

Good ideas, slang terms, chain letters, recipes and urban legends are among the non-biological entities that qualify and that are subject to natural selection. They reproduce with imperfect fidelity, and some reproduce better than others, so an evolution of sorts will take place, in which certain of these cultural replicators will flourish and others will die away.

Is there an unnatural selection?

The adjective "natural" was put in the phrase "natural selection" to differentiate the sort of evolution caused by the selective breeding of race-horses or prize roses from the sort of evolution that happens without such conscious direction by people.

Clearly, recipes and chain letters are spread because of individual people who make conscious decisions to spread some but not others. The term "natural selection" may seem inappropriate to describe this process.

This distinction - between "natural" and "unnatural" or "directed" selection - was useful initially in explaining the theory of evolution, but it is no longer a useful distinction. All selection is natural selection. We are all part of nature, and if we select and breed a certain kind of sheep, it is no less natural that we should do so, than if bees, by landing on more colorful flowers, select and breed a certain kind of plant.

Furthermore, what the "Blue Star" urban legend shows us is that while the transmission of ideas may be a voluntary pursuit, people are not always conscious of the ideas they are spreading - they may believe that they are spreading an important message about a real danger when in fact they are spreading a collection of durable and virulent untruths. While a person who decides to spread such a message is acting deliberately and is selecting the message consciously - it is more accurate to say that the message has evolved into its form in order to encourage people to spread it, than to say that people have selected or "bred" the message into its form.

In Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene, he coined the word "meme" to serve as the counterpart of "gene" when talking about natural selection as it applies to, in Dawkins's words, such things as "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches." The name caught on, and an incipient science of "memetics" has formed around it.

The "blue star" urban legend is a wonderful example of a meme, and can be compared to a virus, in that it briefly takes over the information reproducing abilities of a human mind - which we like to think are usually devoted to reproducing accurate, useful or at least intentionally amusing information - and uses them to reproduce more instances of itself.

How the "blue star" meme mutates

It has evolved to do this by mutating over time - the mutations being caused by errors, modifications and elaborations introduced when the warning message is copied. Those mutations that made people more eager to spread the warning survived and expanded in the meme pool.

Examples of mutations include:

Some of the mutations are less adaptive, and seem more random. "Window pane" is a term used to describe LSD distributed in a flat, translucent gelatin medium divided into a grid of squares. Sometimes mutated descriptions of "window pane" acid work their way into the flyers. Some that I've seen include:

These mutations seem to be just random errors and misconceptions, resulting in nonsense that adds little to the reproductive success of the meme. The sentences that include information about "Window Pane" acid are not often found in versions of the warning seen these days, and probably got left out during reproduction when reproducers stopped being able to make any sense out of them (what's "a grit that can be cut out" anyway?).

Why people spread the meme

In the good old days, before the meme found email, it was generally reproduced without explanation or disclaimer, and so it was difficult to discover the motivations of the people doing the duplication, except through news articles about the legend in which its spreaders were interviewed. When people spread the message in e-mail or on the usenet newsgroups, however, they frequently tack on a sentence or two about why they have decided to spread the meme.

These fall into a few categories. First, the "maybe it's not true, but in case it is true, I thought I should tell you:"

Another variation of this category is "I'm going to pass it on because it sounds important" (its accuracy is not a consideration):

Then there's the "this is true" assertion sometimes masked by "we haven't seen it... yet:"

And there are others that are in the same neighborhood as the above two categories:

The meme is so influential that some people, even when the urban legend status of the meme is pointed out to them, refuse to abandon belief. Some point out police busts involving blotter acid and insist that this proves the legend to be true. Others attack the motives of the people debunking the legend, like one mother who wrote: "...thank you for pointing out that it is an urban legend. I'm sure all the drug dealers out there will be happy to hear that."

Others who acknowledge the mythical status of the warning, still insist that it should be spread. A participant on a parents' newsgroup wrote: "Parents aren't necessarily concerned with truth, where it could be a gray area. We are concerned with our children's safety."

People are generally baffled as to why an almost completely inaccurate warning message like this keeps spreading. From the point of view of meme theory, it makes perfect sense. Without meme theory, though, people have less satisfying theories:

While some of these have an element of truth to them - prejudice does play a part in making the meme effective, elements of truth can sometimes be found in the legend itself, and spreading urban legends does seem to be a part of human nature - looking on the "blue star" urban legend from a memetic point of view makes a lot more sense and leads to much more satisfying conclusions.

The main shift in thinking that needs to take place is to look at the spread of the legend not so much from the point of view of the people who propagate the warning, but from the point of view of the warning itself. Instead of asking "what made this person want to spread this warning," ask "how did this warning acquire elements that make people want to spread it."

Those memes that include elements that interest people and encourage them to spread the word will survive, reproduce and flourish at the expense of less attractive versions.

What we learn from urban legends is that people will assist in the spread of a meme regardless of its usefulness or accuracy if the meme is well-constructed and virulent - that usefulness and accuracy are not necessary elements of a successful meme.

Take notice of your own vulnerability

This legend gives us all a good opportunity to try to discover which viral memes we have been infected with. Everyone spreads some memes, and everyone has certain criteria by which they decide which ones to spread and which ones not to spread. Nobody I've ever met personally verifies the truth of every piece of information they pass on, so we're all vulnerable to memes that satisfy our reproduction criteria despite being untrue.

Some of the criteria I use when deciding whether to pass on a piece of information are:

Looking at this list, and this paper, I see that memetics is a subject that seems, from personal introspection, to have a close fit with reality (Truth). I hope that people will read this paper and think, "Wow, what a brilliant way of looking at information!" (Prestige). It is a philosophy of epistemology, linguistics and information that strikes my curiosity (Interest). It demonstrates that popular delusions, for instance the "blue star" meme, can have a strong effect on public perceptions, and thereby a detremental effect on government policy, for instance the drug war (Correctness). I think that if more people looked upon information as memes to which they may be vulnerable, they would add a level of skepticism to their information processing that would be healthy for them and for society in general (Importance).

I'm happy to spread the memetics meme, and I recognize it as such. I have to be aware though, that if a meme offers me enough in the prestige, interest, correctness, and importance categories, I'm vulnerable to help its spread regardless of its truth value. I also have to note that such a meme, in order to have survived long enough to encounter me, will probably be somewhat plausable and attractive (and will have fooled other people successfully), and that to the extent that I do not personally verify a meme with strengths in these categories, I will be successfully targeted by these memes.

My response to this is to do the opposite of what my inclinations are and what most people seem to do. The natural thing is, if a meme promises a great deal in non-truth-related categories, to lower the threshold of acceptance in the truth-related categories. The justifications for spreading the "blue star" meme quoted above (e.g. "I have not personally substantiated it, but the topic is too important to ignore...") are examples of this.

In light of meme theory, however, one should do just the opposite, since an untrue meme is more likely to survive and propagate if it promises a great deal in non-truth-related areas (the same goes for advertising and campaign promises) - therefore the untrue memes you encounter will probably be very tempting.

Another meme I like to spread is the "George Washington grew cannabis" meme. I strongly suspect that it's true; I've read sources that sound resonable that claim that entries in Washinton's diaries (May 12-13 and August 7, 1765 for instance) explictly say that he was growing cannabis hemp, but I've never verified this personally, and if I were to be honest with myself, I'd have to say that the sources I've seen this information in are probably biased. But I'm tempted to take this on faith because it supports my own views that cannabis isn't so bad (Correctness), I think it's a curious bit of history (Interest), and I think it may influence people to support a more enlightened public policy toward marijuana users (Importance). To follow my own advice, then, I would have to be extra-skeptical about the truth of this meme.

A brief look through the alt.folklore.urban FAQ will probably show you a number of untrue bits of information that you yourself have enjoyed spreading.

For each one, try to remember why you decided to spread the information despite not being sure of its truth. By doing this, you will be able to map out the range of your vulnerability to deceptive memes. This is nothing to be ashamed of - we are all susceptible to this sort of memetic infection - but it is good to be aware of which categories of ideas are likely to slip past your defenses.

An important lesson that meme theory teaches that might not be learned from a non-memetics-based set of critical thinking skills is this: An untrue idea does not have to be a lie in order to spread. Even if everybody who spreads it believes it - even if nobody benefits from people believing an untrue idea - it still may just be an effective, deceptive, memetic virus.


Meme theory compells us to look upon ideas as almost independent creatures, in symbiotic relationships with our minds and our cultures. All shared ideas are memes in the cultural meme pool, and all compete for survival. Importantly, an idea's usefulness and truth are only two of several elements that lead to the survival and propagation of memes - it is possible for memes that are both useless and false to survive and prosper.

Even memes that are essentially true are frequently embellished with false details that help that meme survive in the meme pool. (For instance, I've seen newspaper articles describing LSD busts in which the seized blotter acid was described as "tattoos" - this in articles which never mentioned the "blue star" warnings. The "tattoo" reference was just a meme held by the reporter or one of the reporter's sources that found its way into the article - thereby reenforcing the "LSD comes in tattoos" meme held by anyone who read the article)

By understanding how memetic evolution works, it should be easier for you to examine those memes you encounter in your day-to-day life with a critical eye - using extra skepticism on elements of a meme that seem likely to assist in its spread.

This may help you gain a more accurate view of the world, of culture, and of human nature.

Further reading: