Is it possible to create some "thing", for lack of better words, that is a kind of information, like a joke or a pop-song that can spread across people and make them become depressed and suicidal?

If this is possible? What properties must it have in order for it spread across different people and cause them to be so depressed that they commit suicide?

  • $\begingroup$ If you are talking about a pure biological "virus", you may not be able to implant specific thoughts and ideas, but the virus could possibly effect the brain chemistry. Suppress the production and release of serotonin and endorphins could be one way. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Apr 1, 2019 at 22:53
  • $\begingroup$ Not quite what you are asking for, but for deadly memetic virus using societal violence instead of depression and suicide, the XXe century has many wildly "successful" examples. Between them all, they may even have killed more people than biological plagues. $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    Apr 2, 2019 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ Just look at all the stupid "challenges" kids do on YouTube nowadays... $\endgroup$
    – forest
    Apr 3, 2019 at 6:35

6 Answers 6


This is going to be very controversial but some people would argue some forms religion would qualify, suicide cults keep popping up, the depression aspect is even more common.

  • $\begingroup$ Exactly true. You could expand this. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jan 29, 2017 at 8:38
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The method of action is more fundamental than that. Create a sense of identity or corporation which requires certain behaviors in return for acceptance to the flock or herd; such acceptance should provide benefits which appeal to any deep, emotive desires of its members — protection, comraderie, advantage. There are many things which do this, and proper religion is only one which can be used for that purpose. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2017 at 2:50

Ultimately, what we're talking about is creating an infectious thought that causes people to value death over life. So there are really just two ways to do this:

  1. Increase the value of death, suicide, or depression-inducing behaviours.
  2. Decrease the value of life.

Option One

Both of these are real and serious dangers, and things we have observed in the real world already, as others have already observed. The modern concept of jihad is not a natural aspect of most Islamic theologies in its commonly understood form, but is a possible extension of some of them. In this specific case it is essentially accomplished by affirming the idea that only a glorious death in service to God can ensure eternal life. This isn't necessarily a far cry from some Norse, Spartan or Japanese concepts of a 'glorious' or 'honourable' death.

On the flip side there are subcultures like those people refer to as emo or goth, which glorify depressive behaviours over positive ones. If you're able to affirm the worth of such behaviours to the point where they are more overwhelming than those which encourage people, then you gradually create an oppressive culture which will increase the risk of suicide.

Thinking back to the memetic property, this would probably take the form of a story, a poem, a song, a video or popular saying which reinforces ideas of death or depressive-type behaviour being a good thing.

Option Two

Make life worth less. It's a tragedy and a travesty that as Westerners we really don't have to think too hard about this one - what are the main things which people draw personal value from? Therefore to undermine people's self-worth and increase the relative perceived value of death, the following would be fairly effective:

  • Undermine the integrity of family and marriage, either specifically or generally. If people can't trust their own families to stay together and can't trust another person enough to commit themselves to them, then their perceived self-worth falls.
  • Undermine their sense of identity. Identity is a person's sense of ongoing self-sameness. If somebody does not have a strong sense of being the same person from one day to another, and has people affirming that they are significantly different from who they think they are, then this increases depressive thoughts.
  • Undermine the basic value of life. Normalise death. Encourage death as a good and positive and normal thing for old people, adults and children alike, especially for those with less perceived worth. Too old? Too foreign? Too disabled? Too young? Too helpless? There are a thousand categories you can choose. But undermining the basic sanctity of human life at any age inevitably ties life to worthiness. And if all people are not basically worthy to live, then everybody is left asking themselves that same depressing question: Why am I alive?
  • Undermine their sense of community: people are basically social animals. If you drive people into singleness and loneliness, then they will struggle to sustain their own happiness, and miss out on all kinds of affirmation from other people. If people don't form strong bonds with other people or don't value forming strong bonds with others, then they will probably become depressive unless there is another particularly strong sense of meaning in their worldview.
  • Undermine any sense of objective morality, i.e. divinity. Objective morality depends on an over-arching schema which gives things meaning from the outside. In most cultures God is the one who gives all things meaning, and so people draw meaning and self-worth from him. Undermining this concept and removing objective morality and objective worth can rapidly deteriorate somebody who has learned to rely on this for meaning.
  • Undermine their sense of reality, and invest their identity or self-worth somewhere else. This happens already! If a person invests too much of themselves in an alter-ego to the degree that they neglect their physical self, then they can die of self-neglect.
  • Create an unrealistic standard of 'worthiness' in life. If you can create a wonderful and noble and glorious standard of life to which everybody should always attain, and reinforce that this is the most important thing everybody should do, then that becomes depressive. It's the most common reason people quit Facebook - because of this perception that everybody is happier than me. If the basic standard required to make life worthwhile is higher than most people's actual or even possible standard of life, that creates a depressive setting for the majority.

Disclaimer: I personally disagree strongly and passionately with all of the above ideas, and only present them because they are true answers to the stated question of increasing depression and suicide among people.


In a worldbuilding setting, a central memetic agent could hit all these different marks, and to do so in much more overt ways than western cultures do today, whilst still being subtle enough that it's not obvious to the consumers that this is their objective.

It would be really easy to create a story which is simple, believable and larger-than-life, because it really isn't too much different from the world many of us already live in! Isn't that simultaneously sad and encouraging for you as you consider creating your story?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you suggesting that we have no standards at all, if high standards risk our perceiving them as unattainable? Then what is the point of life? Why am I asking that question? Don't talk to me about life. ;-) $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2017 at 2:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm not making light of a serious subject; that was meant as a comment to the answer. Perhaps I am making light of it; perhaps flippancy has some value after all. Maybe that would be the antivirus — as a Jon LaJoie video surmised. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2017 at 2:40

Killing meme is quite popular among the culture.

There was a movie Kovak's Box. In the lore of the movie majority of human population has implants, that are triggered by Gloomy Sunday song. And this implants gives their hosts so drastic depression, so they performs suicide.

There is a Lullaby novel by Palahniuk about a book with children lullaby (sad song about animals going to sleep) that gently killed people.

I think dangerous Memetic Viruses a real. Just take a look at youtube:

There are a lot of popular fails channels on youtube. 80% of fails are attempts to perform some sort of stunts, and make a video to upload on youtube too, but instead of it, performers fail and get injuries. Maybe fail videos are memetic virus? They are spreading via youtube and sharing links to videos, they are replicated by people trying to perform stunts and upload it to youtube, and they actually harm and sometimes even kill people.

I think this list can give you inspiration.

  • $\begingroup$ goodreads.com/book/show/16158596-lexicon is a fiction book that explores a possibility of memetic "commands" that directly target people's subconsciousness, bypassing conscious will. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Jan 29, 2017 at 13:17

It was done back in WWII, or at least Monty Python's history lessons says it was done.

There's nothing that quite prevents this idea from becoming a reality, but there's also not any good reason to believe it can happen. If you think about it, such a body of information would be a major glaring weakness in all of humankind. It would have to be burred deep into our genome, there for hundreds of thousands of years.

Such a weakness could be quickly exploited, so I would presume that there would be at least one species that exploits it.

Three possible paths:

  • If we were "seeded" on this planet by aliens, they may have left a kill switch in our genome, in case we got out of hand.
  • It could be that we find a "problem" which causes the human brain to enter an endless loop similar to what we can do with computers with the halting problem. The Neil Stephenson book Snow Crash explores something along these lines.
  • Truth is stranger than fiction. While not exactly a joke, this fungus infects an ant's brain, giving it suicidal urges. The real "memetic virus" may be more along these lines
  • $\begingroup$ Humans are resistant to all forms of the halting problem attack: youtube.com/watch?v=UKVsq2daR8Q ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Jan 13, 2017 at 3:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Thucydides I don’t understand the reference (presumably a joke). $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jan 29, 2017 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ Watch the Youtube video at the link. You should find it enjoyable. And the "Halting problem" is an issue in computer science. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Jan 30, 2017 at 15:05

Alright, the problem with a "depression meme" is that it's self-defeating, and competing with other memes for brainspace.

So, you've got a meme that gives people instant, severe depression. It's going to destroy all its transmission vectors. If the person who absorbs the meme is depressed enough to commit suicide, they can no longer transmit the meme. Even if they aren't depressed enough to commit suicide, they're still probably depressed enough that they won't feel like making posts on social media, or going out and talking to people, or otherwise spreading the meme. Successful, continual memes have some way to elicit people to spread them.

It's like a very severe plague, but it can't spread even from living carriers.

Next, this meme needs to compete with other memes for brainspace. Every moment spent thinking about doge images is one moment that isn't being used to think about this depression meme. And the other memes are going to encourage the hosts to seek out, or create more variants of those memes, thus causing them to gain more brainspace. The "depression meme" is going to make people depressed and then they don't really have motivation to do much.

  • $\begingroup$ Sounds plausible, but once the suicides and cause behind them become public, curiosity will draw additional hosts to discover the cause of the suicides. Obviously, the meme needs to be sufficiently powerful and persuasive, and the consequent suicide sufficiently spectacular to hit the news before the sheer number of imitators make it viral. $\endgroup$
    – user289661
    Apr 4, 2019 at 23:07

Many years later, I think I found something approaching the answer to the question in real life: the Among Us memes

It has all the pre-requisites to be a deadly memetic virus:

  • it spreads, with great virality
  • it impairs the hosts' functions (causing some people to enter a sort of hysteria when seeing certain images or hearing certain trigger words)

It is not yet deadly in the sense that it has yet to cause any direct casualties, but it's not inconceivable that something similar to the Among Us meme can become deadly to individual hosts or cause societies to undergo systematic collapse


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