Play Talk Still Tells

Many animals have a concept of “play.” At times and places where they feel safe, friendly associates practice important motions, like chasing or fighting, but try to avoid any big effects – they retract their claws, pull their punches, etc. Play is an important way for young animals to learn how to act like old ones. Humans retain youthful styles longer into life, and so we play all through life.

Humans also developed language, which enabled stronger social rules about forbidden behaviors. For example, not only are you not supposed to kill associates, you are supposed to punish those who do kill, and those who refuse to punish killers, etc. Language let humans tell others about rule violations, to recruit a wider circle of enforcers than just direct witnesses.

Humans also tend to have rules about what you shouldn’t say. For example, foragers not only forbid domination, at least between families, they also forbid talk that supports domination. So foragers are typically not supposed to brag, threaten, or give orders. The more ancient concept of play, however, let humans evade such rules on forbidden talk. Let me explain.

Just as there is play chasing, play fighting, or even play mating, there is also play talk. Like other kinds of play, play talk only makes sense among friendly associates, when they are in a relaxed and unthreatened mood. Play talk should take the general forms of regular talk, but with claws retracted, punches pulled, etc., and everyone acting relaxed and unthreatened. Play talk should not be directly on serious topics with large important consequences, where people get stressed or angry.

With a little indirection, however, even play talk can communicate on serious important topics. For example, while social rules might forbid directly propositioning others for sex, people often communicate an interest in sex by joking about it in the right way. As long as there are other plausible interpretations of their words and actions, it can be hard for others to accuse them of violating the social rules.

It is easier to use play talk to evade talk rules if groups develop a very local culture and language – particular words and associations that have particular meanings due to the local history. This makes it harder to clearly convince outsiders that something illicit was communicated. It can also be easier to use this trick at the expense of folks who are eager to show their loyalty to the local group – publicly accusing another group member of violating talk rules ends the play mode and risks seeming less friendly to the group, especially if the local group isn’t very vested in that particular rule. Finally, it is easier for smarter people to talk indirectly so that they understand each other, but outsiders do not (achieve common knowledge that they) understand.

Humans thus developed sophisticated capacities for using play talk to indirectly communicate on serious topics. We became very adept at and fond of playfully talking on two levels at once, especially when the more hidden level talks about or embodies rule violations. We are so fond of this sort of activity and ability, in fact, that we often consider a surplus of it the main reason we like or love someone, and a deficit of it almost a definition of being inhuman. And such rule-evading abilities were so important that we developed ginormous brains to support them.

I am talking of course about humor, and sense of humor. We cherish our friends and lovers for making us laugh, and we think inhuman robots and despots couldn’t have a good sense of humor. We not only playfully talk illicitly via humor, we also play at humor, practicing this general capacity through endless variations of stories where a hidden often-rule-violating meaning is just barely revealed to wise listeners. Homo hypocritus hones humor. This is who we are.

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  • Evan

    to suggest that we developed ginormous brains to support our sense of humor implies that it also gave us an evolutionary advantage over less humorous individuals. I dont see that connection, unless you see this as some sort of mating ritual. isnt it more plausible that toolmaking, language, etc. selected for higher intelligence and then humor was a mere side effect of having large brains?

    • Matt Knowles

      Evan said: “… we developed ginormous brains to support our sense of humor implies that it also gave us an evolutionary advantage… I don’t see that connection…”

      Robin said: “We cherish our … lovers for making us laugh”

      I think I might see the connection…

    • Patri Friedman

      If covertly violating social norms gives evolutionary advantage (which it sure seems like it would), and humor enables covertly violating social norms, there is the connection.

      I dunno that I buy that this is the primary driver of brain size, but it sure seems like a potential driver.

  • Matt

    I watched Blade Runner last night and when I read this blog post the first thing I thought of was that the androids didn’t really make me laugh. Also, if Harrison Ford fell in love with an android that as far as I can tell never made him laugh, that would be further proof that he was an adroid himself.

    Another thing this post made me think of was this video:

  • Teddy Groves

    Evan I think the idea is that humour allows illicit communication, which allows evolutionarily advantageous rule-breaking. It needn’t just be about mating: there are loads of ways in which people who are able to coordinate secretly can take advantage of those who can’t. On the other hand, I think you’re right about the claim that illicit communication explains humans’ large brains being pretty bold. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is properly backed up elsewhere on this site though.

  • candy

    Good post. I think “play talk” extends further than just humor.

  • Milan Kundera claimed that in communist Czechoslovakia you could tell who was a real Stalinist and who wasn’t by one’s sense of humor. You could figure out who it was safe to talk to by the way people laughed.

    • Vladimir M.


      Milan Kundera claimed that in communist Czechoslovakia you could tell who was a real Stalinist and who wasn’t by one’s sense of humor. You could figure out who it was safe to talk to by the way people laughed.

      The same heuristic is useful even nowadays if you have some opinions that aren’t very respectable. I use it a lot.

      • Konvkistador

        I see the value of this but I’m don’t think I’m a good enough people reader to get away with it. I’d like to learn some algorithms to compensate, does anyone have any relevant links or advice about this?

  • Alex Flint

    I found this very insightful. You’ve written on homo hipocritus often, and on humour sometimes, but, at least for me, this seemed the deepest so far.

  • JB

    If this is the case then why is a large amount of humor not based on illicit communications. Sure, you are right that a lot of humor is based on rule violations. However a lot of humor has nothing to do with illicit communication. There are double entendres about sex (the “that’s what she said” line of jokes) and then there are simple plays on words that have nothing illict about them (“orange you glad i didn’t say banana” or “Who’s on first?”). There are successful comedians that use foul language and overtly say illict things (Richard Pryor, Chris Rock) and successful comedians that don’t.use bad language and make other observational humor that is clearly not illict (Jerry Seinfeld). How do you explain the half of comedy that isn’t rule breaking as such, and just makes people laugh because it is witty and not sex/violence related?

    • Patri Friedman

      Doesn’t it seem awfully telling that approximately half of humor is based on wittily playing with covert beliefs and discussing subjects that aren’t supposed to be discussed?

  • The importance of plausible deniability in all sorts of human communication, humorous or not, seems obvious. I am also attracted to the claim that enabling norm violation is the primary purpose for which human intelligence evolved. (Our ability to model reality seems closely connected with lying and catching liars.) It also seems clear that humor is closely connected to norm violation, whence dirty jokes. (Although some funny things, like watching others get mildly hurt, don’t obviously fit into this.)

    But I’m not convinced that humor should be thought of as “play”, i.e. practicing important behavior with friendly associates while trying to avoid any big effects. Telling jokes doesn’t seem like practice for oblique communication. Yes, we can have oblique communication through jokes (e.g. sexual propositions, as you mention) but we can have oblique communication in many non-humorous ways. Further, when we use humor for oblique communication, we often do so for very important (non-practice) goals, like sex. Humor seems much more important than basketball for important relationships.

    There is some evidence that humor is play. Both peak in childhood (with play peaking earlier) but taper off as people get older (more experienced). Both are done most around existing friends, and can be used as a way to make new friends. I think this is an imperfect identification, though.

    To me, small talk (which might include some humor, but need not) is the proper notion of play for human communication, both oblique and direct. The topics are unimportant (e.g. the weather), but it allows us to get good at conversation skills which come in handy later. It also allows to practice our humor in unimportant situations for use later in important ones.

  • Dave

    How come really, really smart people like Einstein and Newton don’t come up with any real knee slappers,but Red Fox and Rodney Dangerfield do?

    • Robert Koslover

      They did, but their publicists weren’t as good. 🙂

      • steve

        I imagine Einstein thought “God doesn’t play dice.” was pretty funny. It’s just that jokes about the rules of Quantum physics doesn’t speak to the norms the rest of us are talking about.

  • Since talk play couldn’t have developed before humans acquired syntax, it is most improbable that it drove brain size. After all (at least according to what I think is the best evidence), brain size become as large as present (perhaps a little larger, even in relation to body weight) before this acquisition.

    In fact, the most sensible explanation of the brain’s growth spurt, which occurred with erectus rather than sapiens, is (in my opinion, of course) that brain size developed to support the acquisition of a large vocabulary, which developed before language per se. (Proto-language it’s been called, not enough to support humor of any sophistication.)

    This theory that humans developed their cognitive powers to gain social advantages over one another is so implausible that I don’t understand why you’re so smug about its truth. It’s the philosophy, of course, of today’s economists and other social scientists, who have lost any sense that society exists for *production*, and social relations are subordinate.

    • Matt Knowles

      Ann Althouse linked to a video of two toddlers apparently engaging in non-verbal communication, which seems to indicate they were using, and responding to, humor. I’m not sure you can make the case the humor arose later than syntax or vocabulary.

  • Evan, Teddy is right, ginormous brains are for the whole set of rule evading abilities, not just humor.
    Matt, yes, humorless robots are a trope.
    Mike, yes, double-speak is a homo hypocritus skill.
    candy, yes it sure does.
    dirk, yes humor is especially discriminating in such situations.
    Alex, thanks.
    JB, there is also practice at the various illicit comm skills.
    Jess, yes small talk is also like play.
    Stephen, what makes you so sure syntax evolved so late? And why couldn’t syntax-less language have play talk?

  • It’s an interesting idea. It’s not uncommon to see humans engaged in deprecating, yet playful behaviour – as part of the overall process of setting and maintaining hierarchies. Set a collection of friendly males around a table over a beer and they’ll have a good chat. Put an attractive woman amongst them and the deprecating humour will be out in full force. But all in good fun – of course. Norms (more than likely enforced by women and their selective habits) – concerning not beating fellow males over the head are obeyed, while fitness displays can continue.

    But this sort of story doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive of other explanations. After all – at some point you have to explain the almost universal IGNORANCE of the subtexts of communication that you suppose. It’s an empirical data point that can’t be ignored. And the simplest way to account for it is that in many cases in fact there is no hidden assertoric intent in playful activities. This in fact – to me at least – seems much more likely to be the default in most behaviour. It provides a neat explanation of the mass ignorance of the subtexts of seriousness that sometimes obtain since it’s simpler to assume in every case that there is no subtext (since you will get it right most of the time).

    Then you need an explanation of the purpose of most of the play-like behaviour, and you get from the advantages gained through skills practice, and simulation.

    The other advantage to this view is that one doesn’t have to set oneself apart from the vast majority of people who find the more cynical view repulsive.

    • Yes, the universal ignorance of such subtexts is indeed a crucial datum. I find it completely implausible that we are just accidentally ignorant of such things – they are far too important, even if that only takes 5% of our play talk. Far more plausible is that we have an interest in avoiding conscious awareness, as this makes our pleas of innocence and denials of rule evasion so much more sincere.

      • Yeah – that might be sufficient for an explanation of the ignorance. A posssible counter argument is that awareness of such subtexts is actually extremely advantageous – because one can then begin to game them.

        For a good example see – The Game by Neil Straus

        Another possible way to think about it:

        Philosophers often like to appeal to ‘implicit knowledge’ in order to explain our understanding of semantic rules and the like. They use the analogy of our implicit knowledge of syntactic, grammatical rules. We use such rules correctly, but most of us can’t articulate the rules themselves.

        Although I’ve never really been a fan of this form of explanation (in a sense it’s not really explanation at all) – one might think the same sort of implicit knowledge is at work in the case of subtextual communication. Since it’s easy at least to admit that implicit knowledge of some sorts is possible (i.e. grammar) – then claiming that such and such is a form of implicit knowledge has the effect of easing up the explanatory burden of that phenomena, because it becomes less ‘amazing’. Ultimately the problem gets subsumed under the broader problem of how/why the lower brain automates various behaviours in a rule like way beneath the conscious level. It then is no longer a special problem of your particular theory.

  • richard silliker

    We are ambivalent.

  • Robin, you’ve brought three of my favorite subjects together. Jokes, play, taboos… and recursion. My four favorite weapons are jokes, play, taboos, recursion, and the cognitive unconscious. Five!

    Freud said that humor is about taboos, and Minsky added, cognitive mistakes. Viewing this as dog-like play-fighting, it could be a way of fooling you into doing something terribly wrong, but it turns out you didn’t really, so wow, what a relief, and I’m a good sport, hah hah. Then laughter is a little less mysterious, it’s a specialized and concentrated form of fun–which is the special kind of enjoyment of play, which in turn is a special as-if / not-quite danger mode.

    I’m wondering about what I think of as “merely clever” jokes vs. “true humor.”

    Taboo fits with how puns are supposed to be awful.

    Thanks for some new ways to look at those times when it’s puzzling just what’s funny.

  • Steve Pinker has written about the issue of “common knowledge” and plausible deniability as the source of indirect language. Katja Grace wrote about his ideas here, an animated video is here.

  • As it becomes more and more clear that humor is simply benign norms violations with some compressible information, it should be unsurprising that a species of beings who may (by Robin’s thinking) have evolved specifically to violate norms in controlled ways should practice it so often and place so much importance on it. In some ways it is one of the most important forms of play, since, as you suggest, some of it might even be playing at playing.

  • perplexed beauty

    I’ve now endured for months first joking about sex, casual mentions about someone’s sexual preferences and activities, and lately explicit references to erogenous zones, from a woman who is engaged and these things happen not always in the presence of the husband. Now the husband has joined the talk, mentioning sexual acts explicitly. These now occur so routinely that I’ve come to expect them. It’s now one of the topics. I’ve just laughed it off. Are you suggesting I might be receiving a message here? I’m feeling as if I’m being …prepared.

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  • jusuis

    the ability to speak inderectly is surpassed only by the innocence of not having to be inderect. to be inderect sacrifices morality,youth and original humanity.being direct is more efficient .the shortest distance between two points is a strait is and will always be.

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