Silly Is Serious

One of humanity’s biggest mental blocks is a reluctance to admit the functions of fun. Since we are intricately designed highly adapted and successful creatures, all of our major long-established behavior habits must have (had) important adaptive functions. And they must also be intricately designed, with many specific features that match the details of how such functions are best achieved. So, since we are inclined to spend a large fraction of our time on play and fun, such things simply must have important functions. Moreover, the details of our play habits must be intricately matched to good ways to achieve those functions.

But we also seem to be designed to talk and act as if such functions didn’t exist. For many common behaviors, we are conscious of some of their important functions, we plan how our behaviors can better achieve those functions, and we coordinate with others to realize such plans. For example, we say that nutrition is one function of eating, and we coordinate to ensure we get nutrition regularly.

But we usually treat play and fun differently. Not only aren’t we in the habit of coordinating to achieve accepted functions, we often object quite loudly to those who speak of there being such functions. We insist that we aren’t trying to do anything other that enjoy ourselves and have fun. We play an instrument or a sport because its fun, not to impress people. We dance because its fun, not to meet mates. We aren’t trying to get a promotion, no, when playing golf with our boss; golf is just fun.

Play and fun seem especially important for mating and friendship. So if you analyze the function of your play too explicitly in front of your mates and friends, treating such functions too seriously, you risk alienating and losing your mates and friends. You might be able to get away with such analysis if done jokingly, but only if it doesn’t hit too close to home.

You might think that this is only a minor problem, and that you and your mates and friends are mature enough to openly discuss the serious functions of fun. But my experience suggests that this is just much harder and more dangerous than you think. Give up and accept that, for the most part, you are human and humans are designed not to consciously understand such things.

I suggest that if want to understand the functions of your play, you split yourself. Analyze mating and friendship in a general way away from situations where those issues arise among your discussants. When situations arise when those functions are especially relevant, don’t talk, or even think much, about the functions of your fun. Just … have fun.

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  • Ho Hum

    It is possible (though I agree unlikely) that the causal arrow points in the opposite direction: perhaps discussion cannot be performed because our understanding is flawed. We understand a lot about nutrition, but far less about play’s function.

    Presumably the fact that we are designed not to understand such things (or to spend time thinking about them) is an important feature. Perhaps because analysis of play’s function inhibits its purpose. Here is a just-so story about the possible specifics:
    Forming reliable alliances is an important ability to have as a human, owed to all the issues involving precommitment that emerge in game theory. Having fun experiences with someone else causes genuine emotional attachment to form, resulting in stable alliances. Acknowledging such a purpose either inhibits this effect, or is correlated with having a weaker bonding response to fun.

    • john

      If you could consciously analyze the mutual enjoyment and concomitant emotional attachments, you could put on a convincing show of having fun while keeping the emotional stuff one-sided, and then exploit the resultant asymmetry for short-term personal gain. People who did that a lot had fewer long-term relationships, and correspondingly fewer kids.

  • gwern0

    Reminds me of _The Philosophical Baby_’s contention that play is essentially just experimentation & learning. (Or Schmidhuber’s theory of aesthetics as optimizing for increases in compression rate/learning.)

  • manwhoisthursday

    Often if the ultimate function of these things is consciously in our minds they diminish their effectiveness in achieving that function.  Though sometimes concious awareness is neutral or even helpful.

  • manwhoisthursday

    Sometimes though we do admit the function of these things.  I’m going to play basketball to become healthier or I’m going dancing to meet girls.  Why do we sometimes avoid a functional explanation and other times not?

  • chepin

     To have have fun maybe we need most the resources of the brain. So, our mates  don’t need aditional and distracting information about the purpose of the funny activity.

  • Robert Koslover

    Comedians, comedy writers, cartoonists, and toy/game innovators could all  be good candidates for your consideration as serious students (scholars, even) of silliness. 

  • Pingback: The Functions Of Fun | The Penn Ave Post

  • effron

    Often fun is had because it simply feels good. I cannot think of a single social advantage which I may be exercising or seeking when I choose to ride a bicycle. I don’t do it to impress, meet others or to curry favor. I do it because it feels good and that, in and of itself, is fun.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/KAVFVCKEHUC4MLLPDZOZULTYCI Cove

    But perhaps the function of fun is fun itself.

    Tiger Woods works when on the golf course, and though he is very good at it, I doubt he would say playing the PGA this week is “fun” in the same way that whacking daisies outside the clubhouse with a driver is fun; I, from the shallow end of the talent spectrum, might have the same relationship to golf’s fun that Tiger does, but not the same relationship to golf’s “work.”

    Which is to say that form follows function, and the “fun” form of an activity is dependent on convincing ourselves that there is no function.  Writing, for example–the function is communication, regardless of whether you are communicating to anyone but yourself; what makes writing “fun” is the unique self-functionality of the one-sided communication, whereas what makes it “work” is the statistical ubiquity of the multi-user self-expression.  In other words, fun is the function of self, and work is the use of that function–and once one becomes the other, it ceases to be itself.

  • DJ

    What about fun things that diminish mating chances? Video games come to mind.

  • B for Bandana

    More and more I’m getting the feeling that this whole rationality thing is going to come full circle and we’re just going to end up deriving common sense from first principles. I’m going out for lotto tickets. See you at church.

  • V V

    Since we are intricately designed highly adapted and successful
    creatures, all of our major long-established behavior habits must have
    (had) important adaptive functions.

    No. Beware of the adaptationist fallacy.

    We dance because its fun, not to meet mates. We aren’t trying to get a
    promotion, no, when playing golf with our boss; golf is just fun.

    And we play videogames alone or with strangers over the internet who we’ll never interact with in any other situation because?

    But my experience suggests that this is just much harder and more
    dangerous than you think. Give up and accept that, for the most part,
    you are human and humans are designed not to consciously understand such
    things.

    Is that so? I’m under the impression that most people realize, and often openly discuss the fact that doing fun activities is useful to improve and maintain social relationships and attract mates.

    Please don’t take offense, but this posts seems to be written by an autistic person.

    • Ari

      This seems to already third post about video games. I already commented about them. In fact, if I were to met younger myself, I’d tell him not ever to play video games. Fun but waste of time. 
      Honestly, why is that when a evolutionary explanation is presented, bunch of people come at knee-jerk counter-example which does not even hold true.

      I guess the evolutionary trait to raise your status by commenting wins. And then adding a comment about person being autistic is a great way to raise your status even more. In fact labelling or naming people is pretty obvious status move. It is like moralizing someone’s bad clothing. It does not really help anything but shows that you are not X but they are X, where X is something negative.

      Yeah evolutionary explanations are cheap, but there’s way too much evidence for signalling. I understand why people have negative feelings towards these kind of explanations; to protect our societies from going amoral and making a whole bunch of new coordination problems.

      Also I recommend John’s post below for your second to last paragraph.

      • V V

         

        Honestly, why is that when a evolutionary explanation is presented,
        bunch of people come at knee-jerk counter-example which does not even
        hold true.

        Because most of armchair evolutionary “explanations” are essentially unfalsifiable just so stories.

        I guess the evolutionary trait to raise your status by commenting wins.
        And then adding a comment about person being autistic is a great way to
        raise your status even more. In fact labelling or naming people is
        pretty obvious status move.

        Yeah. You know another thing that is a pretty obvious status move? Speaking in Hanson’s defense and writing “This is a great post Robin, goes to your best”.
        Vicarious status gain by signalling allegiance to the Alpha. Clearly in the ancestral environment and so on and so forth… see how easy it is?

      • Ari

        Still your counter-example didn’t really hold true. If you are going to do a counter-argument, you are not really adding new information if the only remaining valid argument is just broad “these are unfalsifiable stories” . Just because we cannot do a controlled test does not mean we cannot get interference from other facts.

        Even these hypotheses tend to be speculative in nature, I’m sure all of these comments are more armchair criticism than the post itself. What are your credentials in this matter? I’d be interested to hear opinion from people who do research about this and not people who just parrot the typical “these can’t be tested” mantra. In Bayesian sense, it doesn’t really help. I will gladly not have any opinion on this matter.
        Yeah you are right, every comment here will have some form of status component. I never said mine didn’t have one. Just like doing research in say medicine. The real question is are you researching a cure to something or snake oil. Last sentence of your o.p. didn’t really add anything civil to this discussion.

      • V V

         

        Still your counter-example didn’t really hold true.

        It doesn’t seem that you provided a refutation.

        What are your credentials in this matter?

        Irrelevant. My argument stands or falls on its own merits.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

        not people who just parrot the typical “these can’t be tested” mantra.

        Let’s throw that pesky scientific method away!

        In Bayesian sense, it doesn’t really help.

        In Bayesian sense, untestable hypotheses have a posterior probability always equal to their prior, which for any non-trivial hypothesis is typically low.

        Last sentence of your o.p. didn’t really add anything civil to this discussion.

        I didn’t mean that as name-calling.

        Hanson discussed the belief that certain enjoyable activities, like dancing or playing golf with someone’s boss, have sexual or social functions.

        I claim that most people intuitively form that belief, Hanson claims that forming that belief requires great insight and that the human brain is specifically adapted (“designed” in his words) to avoid forming such kind of beliefs.

        If my characterization is correct, Hanson’s claim appears to betray a lack of intuitive understanding of social situation and an erroneous model of the beliefs of other people. These are exactly the traits of an autistic person.

        I’m not claiming that Hanson is autistic. Anyone can make an occasional reasoning mistake. Maybe I’m the one that is mistaken, in which case Hanson or somebody else might provide a refutation of my point.
        Just complaining that I used the a-word is not a proper refutation.

      • Ari

        I did provide an answer: we play possibly vg’s because of broken evolution just like we eat too much carbohydrates (thanks TerjeP) because of misplaced evolutionary impulses. You could have answered that, instead we have this meta-discussion.

        Look analyzing social situations analytically does not mean you don’t have intuitive understanding of them. It is like saying analyzing music by cadences, intervals etc. means lack of intuitive understanding of music. It is just people who do those too explicitly signal calculativity, and such people are easily considered untrustable, and for a reason.

        If the argument has to stand on its own then why do you accuse the OP of autism?

        But yes credentials matter. I don’t trust DIY physicists either. http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/02/against-diy-academics.html

        But as far as truth is concerned, intuition or System 1 is highly biased
        system. There was a famous book by Daniel Kahneman recently about this. It is wrong all the time.

        What people intuitively think they do things for can be completely opposite of what they actually do them for. You don’t need to know molecular biology to breath. It doesn’t mean intuition isn’t useful, intuition has to come from somewhere. And about two hundred years ago suggesting that we’re animals was plain unthinkable.

        “In Bayesian sense, untestable hypotheses have a posterior probability
        always equal to their prior, which for any non-trivial hypothesis is
        typically low.”
        I agree.

        “Hanson claims that forming that belief requires great insight and that the human brain is specifically ”
        I don’t think he claimed it requires great insight anywhere.

        I probably not should have responded anything but your argument about vg’s since these kind of debates tend to have inefficient resolution. Thus this will be my last comment. Pardon and bye.

  • Army1987

    Watching TV or playing video games on your own isn’t terribly efficient for making friends or mating, and yet there are people who spend a sizeable fraction of their time on such activities because they find them fun. So there must be something more to it.

    • Army1987

       And anyway… what do people want to impress people, meet mates, or get a promotion *for*?

    • Ari Timonen

      People use a lot of drugs and alcohol too. I remember that butter is tasty because fat was scarce when our body biology was shaped. Thus people eat too much junk food nowadays. These evolutionary traits don’t serve a purpose anymore. Playing video games or watching TV is just false signal except maybe in South Korea with Starcraft. There does not have to be anything more to it.

      Yeah I played video games competitively, and was great at one of them, also did a lot of community stuff but I don’t anymore. Terrible waste of time even though challenging and a whole lot of fun.

      ps. This is a great post Robin, goes to your best.

      • TerjeP

        Fat and protein were not scarce in the diet of traditional hunter gathers. Just look at the food eaten by traditional Aboriginies. In fact fat and protein were staple parts of the human diet for the greater part of our evolution. What was scarce was sugar and carbohydrates. It was not until agriculture started about 10,000 years ago that we started to stuff our faces with cereal, bread, rice and pasta.

  • Oliverbeatson

    Dance clubs are not about music. (Emphatically!)

    • http://www.facebook.com/yudkowsky Eliezer Yudkowsky

      Well, no, they’re about dance.

  • Anonymous

    In what sense is “silly is serious” even a meaningful statement?  What does “serious” mean?  Yeah, it’s probably “serious” from the perspective of our genes, if you want to anthromophize them.  But our genes are just molecular replicators.  Who cares what they want?

  • JonLoldrup

    It’s a matter of revealing / hiding intention: Whether you see fun (and especially: the friends you are having it with..) as a goal in itself, or as a mean to an end. The latter is consciously egoistic which by social dynamics is way worse than subconscious ‘egoism’. Thus people won’t go conscious about it, as it will put them in a bad light. This is of course not a conscious decision.

  • neurotic

    I pursue fun to release tension and to be able to function normally. Once I start trying to impress someone, it not fun anymore, or it is a “nervous fun” with hidden tension.