Examining the Popularity of the Bernie Sanders Meme

Examining the Popularity of the Bernie Sanders Meme

February 3, 20212 min read

The image is a familiar one to millions across the country: Senator Bernie Sanders sitting with his legs crossed and arms across his chest—wearing a face mask, warm coat and knitted mittens—and watching as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021.

Two weeks later, however, the photo looks different. That's because very quickly that inauguration snapshot became an internet sensation, with people photoshopping it to create social media memes—placing Senator Sanders in famous paintings or scenes in movies ranging from the Breakfast Club to Star Trek.

But what it is that draws people to these scenes and motivates them to create memes?

Charles L. Folk, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Villanova University, discusses the psychology behind it all.

“Scenes and people activate ‘schemas’ in our memory,” says Dr. Folk. “Schemas are organized structures of knowledge, stored in memory, that are built up through experience. For example, we all have a ‘restaurant’ schema that stores information about the things that are typically in restaurants and the kinds of interactions we can expect in a restaurant.”

Research suggests that our attention is drawn to objects that are incongruous with the “context” of a scene, Dr. Folk notes. “Thus, if we see a bedroom scene, our bedroom schema is activated, and our attention would be drawn to an object that is incongruent with that schema—like a toaster in a bedroom scene.”

Dr. Folk shares that we have schemas for people as well. “Seeing Bernie Sanders activates our Bernie schema,” he says. “Bernie, in particular, has a very unique schema—so just seeing the picture of Bernie with his Vermont mittens is interesting/humorous because it is quite consistent with our schema of him.”

“However, activating our Bernie schema in the context of an incongruent scene schema—like Bernie sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise or a well-known movie set/scene—is particularly alluring precisely because of that incongruity,” continues Dr. Folk.

Dr. Folk notes that the development of the app that can place the Bernie meme anywhere in Google Maps motivates people further to create their own versions of outrageous incongruity. “This contributes to the viral nature of the meme,” Dr. Folk says.

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