How the concept of relational structures in cognitive psychology showed itself in 2 online meme cultures.

In many ways, this blog post is a personal race against time because my investment and belief in the topic is inversely proportional to the residual caffeine in my system from today’s afternoon coffee run. Here we go.

P.S. This topic is absolutely not epistemically significant nor is it a at all current research direction in the field, I just thought of it spontaneously. If you get to the end and think “okay sure but why is that important or worth pointing out?” don’t worry i’ll probably be thinking the same tomorrow morning. This is just a time capsule for me.

Before explaining this connection between these two seemingly irrelevant ideas, a brief crash course in what exactly the fancy term “relational structure” means is called for (a similar explanation of what the phrase “online meme culture” is can be found much more easily, feel free to contact my good friend S). For those who were brought here because a cursory scan of the title revealed the word ‘meme’, I promise that it will be worth it (the idea is, at the very least, interesting to me.)

The idea of category learning and category construction is a central bank of theories in cognitive psychology, the study of individual and interconnected mental processes (such as memory, reasoning, decision making etc.). This is because our mental representation of categories organically extends outwards into how we think more generally. For example, the cognitive account of racism strips away the ethics of intentionality and focuses on a purely descriptive explanation: the over-reliance on the intuitive “race category” may lead to discrimination along a similarly racial axis, or thinking too much of black and white people in terms of the fact that they’re of black and white race may lead you to discriminate against white people. The example of racism is particularly informative because it highlights the other beneficial feature of category representation: it’s efficient. While this is somewhat (read: very) reductionist, it may be intuitive to conceptualise this in terms of individual objects represented in your brain.

Question 1: Does the categorical concept of “fruit” takes up less space than “apple” + “banana” + “grape”?

In the example above, each object, each fruit, represents a member of the category “fruits”. Fruits are a good example of a feature-based category, one that is defined in terms of traits and features (most often physical and directly perceivable) that are generally stable across time (fruits will always have seeds, they’ll always taste ‘generally nicer’ than vegetables, etc). Of course, there may be things that are themselves in a category but also ‘exceptions’ to that category (e.g. tomatoes). To labour the point, other examples of feature-based categories are liquids, metals and curtains.

However, a different type of category also exists: the relational category. Members of a relational category are not represented in isolation, but in relation to other concepts/objects. I was taught this idea in 3rd year with the example of a “barrier”. The relational category “barrier” may contain a rock blocking the path over a bridge, a sleeping Snorlax blocking your path through a game of Pokemon or the empirical metric of the poverty line in sociology. Just as an ostensibly massive rock may be physically blocking your path on a nice stroll over a fictional (but nonetheless scenic) bridge, a sleeping Snorlax also prevents you accessing the rest of the similarly scenic game of Pokemon (notice how anyone who’s played Pokemon understands how this comparison is funny; that spontaneous mental chuckle you may have experienced is perhaps the best illustration of this concept, and many more throughout the post). Of course, you can probably see how this relates in a similar fashion to the poverty line (to those concerned that this comparison trivializes those suffering through poverty, see the appendix).

The best experience-based illustrations of relational concepts are perhaps the questions you learned to complete in the GA Selective Schools Test (e.g. A flock is to sheep as an armada is to what?). If you got this right, you understood the simple relation of plurality (and an empirically indefensible assumption regarding intelligence).

Question 2: Are “chairs” relational categories? Is a beanbag a chair? What about the ground, is it a chair?

For those who still don’t quite understand it, feel free to check the appendix (please do, it’s an extremely novel idea i came up with to increase engagement /s). A good rule of thumb is that feature categories are domain-specific (all apples share a certain percentage of their biological/genetic features), whereas relation categories are domain-general (a ‘model’ is a cross-disciplinary relation between empirical reality and a more easily understandable structural approximation).

While it most likely required one or more concrete examples are required for people to understand a new relational category, the staggering intellectual ability of human beings (the one time i am using this phrase unironically) allows us quickly develop to a point where we are able to think about relational concepts as whole ideas in and of themselves.That is to say, these relational concepts eventually transform into discrete, individual categories. Instead of having to think about the physical rock and the bridge, you can eventually intuitively represent that relation as a barrier, and more importantly, apply this categorical efficiency to thinking about the many other barriers in the world.

Okay here’s where memes come into the equation. The two specimens we’ll be examining today are the general format Starter Pack meme and the somewhat specific “the dark souls of X” meme.

Consider the following starter pack meme:

Meme figure 1:

Image result for black persons starter pack

Fortunately, at this point in the starter pack meme’s lifetime, we almost immediately recognise that this is shit-tier low hanging fruit that does not make the most of the supposedly clever memetic format. In fact, you might just rightfully brand it as unambiguously racist and move on.  In this way, starter pack memes can be placed on a dimension of categorical abstraction, where the more abstract the perceived relational structure, the ‘higher quality’ we judge it to be. In this case, there is no central relation of ‘blackness’ that binds together the 4 features.

Alternatively, here are two i found while browsing earlier (for research)

Meme figure 2:

/r/ EarthPorn starter pack

Meme Figure 3:

These two memes (that are, for the vast majority of people, less flagrantly offensive) each make use of relational structures in a different way to achieve humour.

Figure 2 uses the central relational structure of “predictability” and “prototypicality” (a relation that imparts the overall impression that something is generic as a function of its frequency and adherence to stereotype; therefore less deserving of artistic merit) to extract out both a domain-general view of creative production and a more specific commentary on how the user structure of reddit systematically nudges content towards stagnation (this of course is contingent on the viewer’s own pre-existing knowledge, as is the entire meme somewhat). That is to say, the 3 separate images on the page aren’t just co-occurring arbitrarily, they collectively evoke the same relational structure.

On the other hand, Figure 3 highlights on the rampant tokenism and dispensable nature of a particular trope in fiction through the construction of a central relational entity. As with Figure 2, the meme is obviously not referring to any actual individual, but rather a relational proto-character. What is particularly clever is the literal interpretation of the common relational metaphor “just a different coat of paint” in parodying the shallow attempts at supposed nuance and innovation demonstrated by blockbuster film directors (to labour the point, the fact that we pick up on this irony represents our implicit relational understanding of both ‘tokenism’ and of course, what it means to be ‘literal’).

Question 3: How does the following image illustrate the point above in the brackets?

Memes, Name, and Names: when your last name is Worldwide

In some sense, the starter pack memes above were a tangential, normie-friendly look at the idea of relational categories. We will now examine a meme that is much more tightly linked to this idea of relational categories: “the dark souls of X”.

(For those who know nothing about the meme:

For a long time (maybe even now), the Dark Souls series of video games has been known primarily for its difficulty. A large part of this perception is simply that the publishers of the game Bandai Namco have continuously and aggressively marketed difficulty as a core component of the game’s appeal. The title of the first game’s definitive edition was drenched in edge and called “Prepare to die edition” whereas the hub area of Dark Souls 2 contained a plaque that counted the number of total deaths, almost proudly lauding itself over the playbase (and completely breaking the verisimilitude, if only for a second). As the game achieved more mainstream success throughout recent years (for a multitude of reasons, objective quality being amongst them), reviewers began to adopt a relational frame of reference by labelling games in complete different genres “the dark souls of X genre (see the link above for particularly offensive examples).

The error at play here is the overemphasis of mechanical difficulty as a feature category rather than a small component of a relational network that ties together many aspects of game design. In essence, “Dark Souls game” is a nested relational category that involves (in my opinion) a tight fit between the player’s guided yet personal path through a multi-layered level and the resulting aesthetic experience of isolation and personal progression, difficulty being only one of the components of said level design (this topic deserves, and has its only long-form video, linked at the bottom).

Of course, this concept of interaction between phenomenology and artistic expression is not in a logical format that is either ‘title-friendly’ nor generically appealing. As such, game reviewers, in either their ignorance or attempts to exploit the series’ appeal to bolster the game they’re reviewing, instead latched onto the most salient and easily understandable trait of difficulty.

Now at this point, you might be wondering a few things.

  1. Sure, they favoured a feature over a relation. So what?
  2. Was it even intentional?

Or maybe if you hate game journalism.

3. Wow a game journalist was insufficient in their analysis of the subject matter.                    What’s new?

However, what was hilarious and eye-opening was the fallout that happened within the dark souls meme community (primarily the good folks over at, where proud redditors would not stand idle while their shared intellectual material was shamelessly slandered by the ‘casual audience’.

As a result


What is amazing to me is that this buzz-phrase-turned-meme, purely by virtue of its existence, demonstrates a thorough understanding of relational categories as part of a distinct category in and of themselves. That is to say, the memelords have somehow extracted out the meta-concept of intellectual dishonesty and laziness as indexed by the over-reliance on identifying similarities and relevance based on merely features rather than relations.

This meta-awareness of the memetic structure then of course lead to subversions such as the one below which highlights the irony that the starkly differing artstyle (another easily identified feature) doesn’t seem to be enough for game journalists’                        mis-identification.No automatic alt text available.

So what general message are we to take from this?

In a way, memes have started to become an organic snapshot of the wider cultural consciousness in general. My point here isn’t really that innovative: it’s simply that our implicit understanding of relational concepts/categories is very clearly demonstrated through our incorporation of them into our value systems regarding art and nuanced discourse. Since we use relational categories to generalise across domains (a process called analogical thinking), an over-reliance on surface features rather than embedded relations can lead to less comically obvious but nevertheless costly consequences.

In closing, and to illustrate this summary using a recent hot topic, consider the following parody conversation:

X: I love Black Panther, it’s such a good example of how marginalised culture can find a foothold in mainstream media. The themes are really explored well, and they don’t feel like ideological browbeating since the movie is still thoroughly engaging as a work of superhero fiction. The narrative structurally incorporates the sociological themes in tandem with the genre and it’s great that they’re not just incidental to one another.

Y: Yeah i love it when Black people show up in films that turn out to be successful. Black Panther really is the Titanic of Black movies.

(I’m super sorry if X is an oversimplification, i’m not that well-versed in film criticism, but you get the point.)


Appendix (only read the first 3 if you’re actually looking for informative examples, the rest are a ‘bit’ wanky)

Other examples of relational concepts/categories embedded in this blog post:

Line 2: “Inverse proportionality” describes the negative statistical correlation between two variables (e.g. the more questions you got right on a test, the less you got wrong)

Line 7: “Time capsule” is not something defined by the fact that it’s physically buried somewhere in the grounds of an ’80s teen movie, it’s defined by the abstract idea that it’s an elegant symbolic snapshot of what you were at the time of creation that you uncover (not necessarily by uncovering it from a body of soil) some amount of years later.

Line 16: “Mental representation” is the relationship between things that exist in the world and how they are represented in the mind (e.g. friendly neighbourhood neurons #42888961 – #42888985 have the good fortune of representing the apple you ate this morning)

Line 18: “Intentionality” is the relationship between the abstract idea of intention and the means through which it affects your behaviour (sidenote: it is worth noting that you do probably care about this idea; are you more likely to be angry at someone who tripped you over by accident or someone who was trying to trip you over but unfortunately failed? unlike C.S. Lewis however, i don’t believe that the fact that we implicitly account for intentionality serves as an argument in favour of Christianity)

Appendix, Example 4 (Intentionality): A “straw man” is the relationship of an inadequacy in nuance between your understanding and characterisation of another’s opinion and the nuance/depth of the opinion itself.

Line 46: “Trivialisation”: The relationship between what an idea is compared to and how the comparison itself undermines the perceived significance of the idea.

Appendix, Example 7 (Trivialisation): “Ethical exemption through acknowledgement” is the relationship between explicitly admitting to doing something ethically questionable (such as potentially trivialising poverty for the sake of analogy) and the subsequent partial relief from related moral concerns (while the phrasing is something i came up with, this is essentially what the “conflicting interests” section of a research paper is)

Appendix, Title: “Reverse Psychology”, the relationship between telling you only to read the first three, and the fact that some of you read up until here as a result.

Line 22: “Atypicality” is the relationship between “discriminating against white people in favour of black people” and the typical stereotypical expectation of the opposite direction of discrimination. “Atypicality” is also the relationship between tomatoes and what you have in your mind as the prototypical “fruit”.

Most of this appendix: “Esotericism” is often perceived to be the causal relation between how eccentric and niche a content domain is and how impenetrable it is viewed to be as a result.

Endnote: The point of this pretentious appendix is simply to show you just how well you understand these complex relational systems at an intuitive level and how effortlessly we wield them when reading, speaking and listening in everyday life (as well to show you how tightly they are nested within one another). The higher-order tendency to experience stimuli and concepts in relational terms is a major reason why the world is so quantitatively complex yet still able to be processed most of the time. The indulgent nature of appendix is also a demonstration of how much this topic has plagued the author’s everyday life because these systems stick out way too much for him.

Related reading:

The landmark paper describing the relational shift: how crucial it is that children shift towards a relational perspective early on in their developmental trajectories.

Chi, M. T. H., Feltovich, P. J., & Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and
representation of physics problems by experts and novices.

A very often-cited empirical study that shows how you can easily and incorrectly interpret a problem in terms of features rather than relations (the same logical argument as the dark souls meme, just replicated ‘in the lab’)


A classic of the incredible critic Filmcrithulk on the topic of shallow categorisations which lead to shallow comparisons. Honestly just “the dark souls of the blogs talking about what you just read”


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