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Being Exposed to Toxic Relationship Memes Can Warp Your Romantic Outlook

·459 words·3 mins
Psyched for the Weekend Relationships

It’s been long established that human beings are social learners — and part of how they learn is vicariously, via the media that they ingest.

Memes are a fairly new form of media, only gaining prominence the last few decades with the rest of the Internet. Yes, memes are media. Oftentimes, memes are treated as sort of throwaway entertainment. Not taken seriously as a genre of their own.

So I found today’s study to be quite interesting. In it, participants were shown romantic memes and then their romantic beliefs and relationship satisfaction were tested after this exposure. This is an experimental technique known as priming — whereby people are exposed to a stimulus and then tested to see if this exposure provoked a response. I haven’t written a devoted post for this series about priming (at least not yet), but the approach has a long illustrious history in psychological experimentation.

For the purposes of this study, participants were shown romantic memes that were one of the following:

  1. Ones that espoused toxic beliefs — which the researchers chose as jealousy-promoting, expectations that were unrealistic, insecurity and reassurance based
  2. Ones that espoused healthier relationship qualities — for this the researchers focused on personal autonomy, gratitude, and tolerance

Yes, really. That’s what the researchers picked as “toxic” versus healthier relationship beliefs. I was quite happy to see that it lined up with my own relationship values, even though this was general research and not non-monogamous/ambiamorous themed research.

Exposure to the Toxic Memes Had an Effect on Relationship Beliefs

So did exposure to the toxic memes have an effect? Yeah. Seriously. Even the brief exposure had an effect (wow). But only on relationship beliefs. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t an effect on relationship satisfaction.

But when it came to beliefs, the results were clear. It makes you think, really. Even in a brief experimental manipulation, it had an effect. Think of how bombarded you are on a typical day if you spend a lot of time online. It makes me feel like there are a bunch of people walking around who have internalized some wacky relationship beliefs just because they’ve seen them a lot. (And not necessarily because it squares up with their personal experiences or how things actually are.)

And if you’re trying to move towards a healthier view of relationships, it’s entirely possible that exposure to the toxic beliefs — even in something as passing as a meme — could be making it harder for you to move past them.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


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