In medicine, the word pathogen means an organism that causes diseases that are harmful to you if you are exposed to it, such as a harmful virus, bacteria, and fungi (in contrast to a micro-organism that might be good for you like a pro-biotic gut bacteria, or bad for you like strep).

I am looking for a single word that is a memetic analogy to a pathogen, i.e. an idea or emotion or other meme (in the memetic sense) that is harmful or toxic to be exposed to, such as a conspiracy theory or hate or an idea that makes you feel inferior.

I'm looking for something close to the social work term "adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs) which a standardized indicia of childhood traumatic experience that can lead to negative life outcomes, but not specific to children.

It might also be an echo of the idea of the "seven deadly sins" (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) without the religious connotations and with an emphasis on being something that can be spread rather than something that is an inherent character flaw.

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    Why doesn't "toxic" work for you? There's even a book: amazon.com/Toxic-Ideas-Polluting-Your-Mind/dp/1596381965
    – Greybeard
    Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 18:35
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    Merriam-Webster's entry for toxic includes the extended meaning "extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful" with example toxic sarcasm.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 22:50
  • @Greybeard I was looking for a one word noun rather than the adjective attached to something else.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 19:32
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    – Greybeard
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 19:35
  • @Greybeard An improvement. Broader than my more specific goal, but maybe the best yet.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 19:36

2 Answers 2


An infohazard is a similar concept, but more narrow than you're looking for.

Trauma can be used for a similar concept to ACEs; this too is narrower than you're looking for.

  • Thanks. Trauma is both narrower and also broader, in the sense that getting injured in a car accident is a trauma, but is physical rather than an idea or emotion.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 14:04

dangerous memes

Actually, I think we're all responsible for not just the intended effects of our ideas, but for their likely misuses. So it is important, I think, to Richard [Dawkins], and to me, that these ideas not be abused and misused. They're very easy to misuse. That's why they're dangerous. And it's just about a full-time job trying to prevent people who are scared of these ideas from caricaturing them and then running off to one dire purpose or another. So we have to keep plugging away, trying to correct the misapprehensions so that only the benign and useful variants of our ideas continue to spread. But it is a problem. We don't have much time, and I'm going to go over just a little bit of this and cut out, because there's a lot of other things that are going to be said.
Well now, how are we going to tell the good memes from the bad memes? That is not the job of the science of memetics. Memetics is morally neutral. And so it should be. This is not the place for hate and anger. If you've had a friend who's died of AIDS, then you hate HIV. But the way to deal with that is to do science, and understand how it spreads and why in a morally neutral perspective.

Get the facts. Work out the implications. There's plenty of room for moral passion once we've got the facts and can figure out the best thing to do. And, as with germs, the trick is not to try to annihilate them. You will never annihilate the germs. What you can do, however, is foster public health measures and the like that will encourage the evolution of avirulence. That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations of the most toxic varieties. Daniel Dennett; "Dangerous Memes", TED talk

The philosopher Daniel Dennett is the author of many works that discuss memes, including the creationism-debunking book Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

With reference to the OP's question and Greybeard's comment, Dennett mentions toxic ideas twice and most toxic varieties once.

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