COVID memes help us cope with pandemic-related stress, says UC Santa Barbara researcher

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Memes can make people calmer, more content, and more confident in dealing with the pandemic, according to a new study from Penn State and UC Santa Barbara. For example, a cat has a menacing expression, and there’s a caption saying, “New study confirms cats can’t spread COVID-19, but would if given the option.”

Robi Nabi is a professor of persuasion, emotion, and health communication at UC Santa Barbara and helped facilitate the study. She says researchers showed memes and similar non-humorous content to participants, and found that memes elicited a higher emotional response. 

“The emotional responses weren't just, ‘Oh, that was so funny, I'm laughing, I'm amused.’ It was, ‘I feel relaxed, I feel content, I feel joy.’ So it's a range of positive emotions all combined,” she tells KCRW. “It was that elevation of positive emotions that was associated with people feeling like they were more efficacious in coping with COVID-related stressors.” 

Memes can help people perceive the world in a different way: “When we reframe the world, we are seeing it differently, we think differently, we feel differently, and our actions follow suit. So in this case, the fact that people were viewing COVID with a little levity, rather than the seriousness that we typically are hearing about it, that allows us to go, ‘Oh, okay, I can take a deep breath here. It's gonna be okay.’” 

She adds that memes can provide a sense of connection, especially during the pandemic. “You can relate to being on an airplane and hearing anyone cough or sneeze, or even in a grocery store line. That's something we're all experiencing now. … And you go, ‘Okay, it's not just me.’ And so it does help validate the nervousness and stress that you might be feeling, as we all are. And that helps us feel a bit better as well.” 

Researchers also pinpointed what type of memes elicited stronger reactions. Cute baby animals evoked very strong responses, but Nabi says they didn’t boost viewers’ coping abilities. COVID-specific memes, however, pulled more engagement and required more time for people to process.

“The more attention they gave to the meme, then the higher their coping efficacy was. So something about it relating to this experience that we're all having, in the midst of the pandemic, seems to capture a little bit more attention than some of the other memes,” she says. 

As a result, Nabi says memes can be used as public information drivers. 

“There's so much negative messaging. … We've heard the same messages. We've heard them again and again. [And by] finding ways of packaging information so that audiences can get that information, they can get it quickly, [and] they can enjoy the experience, and they learned something. That's a win across the board.” 



  • Robin Nabi - professor at UC Santa Barbara who studies persuasion, emotion, and health communication