Why Laugh At Nerds

3.5 years ago I wrote:

Nerds essentially have “Autism light,” i.e., high intelligence and low social skills. … Nerds cooperate pretty effectively all the time on large software and other engineering projects. … [But are] worse at judging which coalition to join when, which associates may betray them or have done so, when and how to betray associates, what lies to tell, what threats will be credible and appropriate, and so on. … [Nerds are] preyed upon by those with better social skills. … Spouses could more easily get away with cheating on nerds, and business partners could more easily get away with reneging on implicit understandings.

2.2 years ago I elaborated:

Some folks are both unusually smart and unusually conscientious about their ideals. More than most people, these folks notice their hypocrisy, and try to avoid it. And since far ideals tend toward incoherence and impracticality, this has led smart sincere folks to invent a wide range of “ideologies” to substitute for their jumbled intuitions.

Most people like to make fun of and laugh at nerds. Why? You might assume we like to laugh at people with low abilities, to emphasize our superiority. But there are plenty of folks with mostly low abilities across the board, and they mostly aren’t considered funny. So why are nerds, who at least have some strong skills, especially funny?

As I’ve hinted at before, and will elaborate more on later, I think the essence of humor is our sheer joy at playing homo hypocritus well. We just love to see the juxtaposition of two communication levels, an overt and a covert one, especially when this helps “us” take advantage of “them.”

Homo hypocritus pretends to mainly value overtly useful skills, while really greatly valuing covert conniving skills. Nerds tend to be much better at the former than the later, and are often unaware that the later skills exist. So the fact that nerds think well of themselves for their overt skills, but are largely unaware of how poor they are at covert conniving, is just hilarious.

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  • I think the root of humor is releasing tension from a startling but ultimately harmless stimulus, and the laugh signals to other humans that there is nothing wrong. It’s upsetting mildly when someone ignores social norms because occassionally this can cause havoc in relationships which are important to humans, but usually violation of social norms ends up being harmless, so we all have a laugh at the nerd (or foreigner, or person of a different class than ours, et c.)

  • How sure are you that nerd jokes are a universal human feature?

    For comparison: fifth century Greek joke book, in the worst format ever.

    45 of the jokes, in sensible html.

    Some of the jokes are translated as being about “intellectuals”, such as “An intellectual, falling sick, had promised to pay the doctor if he recovered. When his wife nagged at him for drinking wine while he had a fever, he said: “Do you want me to get healthy and be forced to pay the doctor?” “, but this doesn’t strike me as being the same as a nerd joke.

    • anon

      According to the first site you link to, these jokes were actually making fun of scholastikoi, privately educated ‘students’ who were instructed in literature and rhetoric at a number of scholarly organizations in Athens. They were widely stereotyped as dunces who would disregard their education, spend large sums on wine/gambling and engage in violent riots between rival student groups. In other words, apart from being ostensibly focused on education, they were pretty much the polar opposite of modern “nerds”.

  • No, what you are feeling is not humor, what you are feeling is the amusement you feel at bullying someone with less social status and confusing it with humor.

    People with autism are bullied more than people with similar levels of disability without autism. I have written about this in the context of xenophobia. I think they both come from the same physiology, the tribal urge to denigrate and in the limit kill those who are not of our tribe.

    • “not humor, what you are feeling is the amusement you feel at bullying someone with less social status and confusing it with humor.”
      Can’t it be both?

  • Psychohistorian

    Covert conniving is a very narrow subset of what nerds are bad at. It is also very rarely what makes us laugh about nerds.

    Humor is centered on wrong-ness. It usually needs to be paired with some kind of truth or rightness (hence the humor of puns, double-entendres, and jokes about mistakes – they’re wrong). Laughing at someone who merely lacks social skills lacks any element of rightness; such people are basically unlikeable and or unfortunate. Laughing at a smart person who lacks social skills pairs wrongness with rightness.

    Reading that it is somehow specifically focused on nerds inability to connive is reading much, much further than the evidence can carry you.

    • “Covert conniving is a very narrow subset of what nerds are bad at”

      Key point. Autism light is a pretty good characterization, but autistic people don’t have deficits limited to the social. For example, their social ignorance expresses a more general inability to see the forest for the trees.

      Autistic people aren’t on average exceptionally intelligent, and many people I would classify as nerds aren’t very bright. The intelligent ones are funny because, as psychohistorian said, they are the locus of particularly severe relative deficits. (Plus dumb or ordinary ones often cannot hold a job.)

  • Matthew

    I have a pet blue crown conure. He mimicks laughter when he gets excited, and his eyes “flash” becoming completly orange while he bobs his head up and down. It’s always fun to see what get’s him going.

    I just bought a new computer, and the paper stuffing made a very loud crackling noise, which totally set off my bird. Soon he was laughing, “flashing” his eyes, and in a totally fun and playful mood.

    Do you really think the bird is intitiating a status move here? OF course not! Then where did this fascinating transition occur? I thought his behavior was hillarious but the bird doesn’t understand.

  • JB

    Most people like to make fun of and laugh at nerds.

    Huh? I disagree with that statement. People don’t laugh and make fun of politicians all the time? Politicians are anti-nerds, they usually have to be charismatic to get elected. People make fun of jocks all the time as well. I’m not saying that nobody makes fun of nerds. Sure, plenty of people do. But why do you have such an obsession with this big dichotomy between Nerds and Non-Nerds. Its a huge spectrum and everybody makes fun of everybody else.

    I agree that humor is often about putting other people down that are different than you. But many nerds make fun of jocks and many jocks make fun of nerds. Both groups think they are better than the other.

    Otherwise your post just reads like “People that are conniving are more conniving than people that are not conniving.” Of course that is true, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

    • Matt Knowles

      It seems to me that the question is “What is it about nerds that makes them suitable targets for laughter?” It may already be understood why we laugh at other targets.

      It seems to me quite possible that there is a broad experience across most of the culture of people who have felt put down by nerds, and thus like to see them put down in return. It is easy for me to imagine an “early nerd-bashing” case where some jock was made to feel inferior in front of his social pack by a nerd who, quite ignorant of the social harm he was doing to the jock, pointed out the “obvious” flaw in the jock’s plans.

  • Mario

    I assume the humor comes from the same instinct that makes videos and pictures of cats so popular online. People view cats as having an inherent gracefulness and superiority, so seeing one fall down or wearing a funny hat brings them back down to “our” level.

  • Externalizing one’s conception of status by denigrating others with different characteristics attempts to raise one’s relative status and serves a bonding function for those with a given set of characteristics. It is especially important when the denigrated group is in danger of usurping status from the other group.

    • Grant

      I’m thinking Robin is over-analyzing. It seems as simple as laughing at nerds because nerds are a minor out-group with significantly different values from the median. They’re easy to paint as an out-group, and easy to brand as failures because their values are different. This makes them an easy target for status-seekers to laugh at.

    • Yes, but mocking people far below you in status can backfire, depending on who observes it. It can lower your status in relationship with those above you if those below you see you do it. You can lose status with those you are mocking too. That is why the wealthy (i.e. the Koch brothers) and politicians only mock the tea partiers when the wealthy and politicians are off camera. If the tea partiers really knew what the wealthy and the politicians really thought of them, they wouldn’t vote GOP any more and the social status of those GOP politicians and the wealthy who have purchased their services would collapse.

      That is why Robin’s statement about mocking nerds is surprising. Not that he disrespects nerds, it is pretty obvious that social status means much more to him than intelligence, facts or ability, but that he voices that disrespect in a public forum like this.

      My guess that Robin’s willingness to disrespect nerds to their face shows the absolute level of disrespect he has for nerds, not just that he thinks they are beneath him. He thinks they are so far beneath him that how they feel can never percolate up the social hierarchy and affect him.

      • Konkvistador

        One could easily frame your own response in a similar context.

  • Well there are two things that jump out at me here,

    1.) nerd != smart

    I’ve known plenty of nerds who were not intelligent. Especially as I get older this has become more apparent to me. I used to consider myself a member of the group known as “nerds” until I realized there are a lot of nerds are out there who actually aren’t very smart and who are socially maladapted not in a cute & harmless way but rather they are just jerks of a different kind.

    2.) have you read “Why Nerds are Unpopular“?

    It’s a rather good, if long, essay. Here are some tantalizing quotes:

    The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. Why don’t smart kids make themselves popular? If they’re so smart, why don’t they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?

    … if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don’t really want to be popular.

    If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn’t want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn’t want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.

    But in fact I didn’t, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.

    At the time I never tried to separate my wants and weigh them against one another. If I had, I would have seen that being smart was more important. If someone had offered me the chance to be the most popular kid in school, but only at the price of being of average intelligence (humor me here), I wouldn’t have taken it.

    Much as they suffer from their unpopularity, I don’t think many nerds would. To them the thought of average intelligence is unbearable. But most kids would take that deal. For half of them, it would be a step up. Even for someone in the eightieth percentile (assuming, as everyone seemed to then, that intelligence is a scalar), who wouldn’t drop thirty points in exchange for being loved and admired by everyone?

    And that, I think, is the root of the problem. Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.

    • Gil

      I thought nerd = smart because to quote Milhouse”I’m not a nerd. Nerds are smart”. I was under the impression that the Apsies/Aspie-oids were classified into: nerd = smart, geek = average and dork = idiot. In other words, if you’re of average intellience yet social awkward you’re a geek, i.e. Milhouse.

      • As I geek I’d disagree with that classification.

        Amongst my own peer group, the scheme is considered to be based on interests/study-major.
        geek = comp-sci
        nerd = physics, chem or maths
        dork = none of the above… but with an emphasis on role-playing games and SF fandom

        YMMV, but I’ve never before heard of a smartness-scale classification between the three words.

      • Matt Knowles
      • My own sense, from comic East Side Dave (on either Ron & Fez Show or Special Delivery Show)
        is that it breaks down:

        Nerd: Smart in useful (but not socially popular) areas and comes across as arrogant about it (He’s got a 4.0 GPA in computer science -what a nerd.)
        Geek: Nonthreateningly hyper literate in a not socially popular area, not an evangelist about it (I’m a social science blog geek -it’s embarrassing).
        Dork: Enthusiastic and positively deviantly literate in a not socially popular area, and highly evangelistic about it (Are you two dorks still yapping about World of Warcraft?).
        I agree with Patton Oswalt’s essay in Wired that that these concepts have been corrupted by the internet and the masses.
        But one can still be a Nerd, a Geek, or a Dork when it comes to the academic blogosphere. I doubt discussing p values will mainstream prior to more powerful neural enhancement or ems.

  • This is a complete just-so story. Not only that, but it is restricted to a very narrow base. Outside the English speaking world, humor directed at nerds is nearly non-existent. Some languages didn’t even have a term for “nerd” until they imported one from English or invented one to translate the English word. Your hypothesis only makes sense if humor directed at nerds is near universal. Since even the concept of nerds isn’t nearly universal, this fails badly.

    • Matt Knowles

      I’m sorry, but that’s kind of like saying that attempts to analyze why humor against “cross-dressing robots that use fly-swatters as back-scratchers” is a “fail” because “cross-dressing robots that use fly-swatters as back-scratchers” isn’t a universal archetype.

      Surely, we can try to analyze emerging phenomena, no?

  • What daedalus2u said. It’s about status. People like to make fun of nerds because nerds are a strange hybrid with regard to status — they are smart and successful at school and/or work, which would imply high status, but they have poor social skills, which would imply low status. By focusing on the poor social skills (which you’ll find almost all anti-nerd humor does) it brings relief that those nerds really are lower status than you (the audience) and you are superior because you have better social skills. That relief is experienced as humor.

    (Man, analyzing jokes really does kill them. I love The Big Bang Theory, for what it’s worth.)

  • JGWeissman

    I am not so convinced that nerds have poor social skills. Most nerds I know have strong social skills for interacting with other nerds. It is true that they might not be so good at interacting with so-called “normal” people, but the normals tend to be embarrassingly bad at interacting with nerds. Perception of general social skill is skewed by their being more normals than nerds to interact with; it a nerd-dominated society in which people easily notice and disapprove of hipocracy, normals would be nearly helpless. Granted, you have to live in the actual world, and skills to interact with the existing population are useful, but it seems to me that lots of nerds have risen to this challenge in a way that normals could not, by generating evidence backed theories of social interaction that they use to inform their actual behaviors.

    • Roger S

      Want to know what nerds feel like? Hop over to Japan, and stick some chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. It’s fun and it’s offensive. Nerds are perfectly well-adjusted in their own country, but are like foreigners in normal country.

      The locals at least chalk it up to you being a tourist and forgive you. I think normals are equally forgiving of nerds, up until the nerds say they’re better. Then it’s like Americans being…well, anywhere.

      Is America really the ideal for folks?
      Is a rejection of froufrou socials the pinnacle of human evolution?

      No and no.

  • Ian K

    Otherwise said, nerds are better than you at overt skills and the sole value of overt skills is a better position to use covert skills(better status). Then nerds are wasting their time, by not having covert skills (claiming the status they rightfully can claim… perhaps because it is not in their status-obtaining strategy).

    We could say the problem with schools (in opposition to real life) is that there is no need to have any overt skill to have status. So people that could have acquired in another society (perhaps another time) the right overt skills to gain status (skills which would have followed them over time) are in a position where such skills are useless to status gaining in their reality, a vicious reality, school years.

  • Alternatively: people laugh at nerds because they have trouble getting laid, and as Geoffrey Miller taught us, that’s all that really matters.

    • Sister Y

      Male nerds. This is because of the difference in variation of IQ between the sexes. Females are more clustered around the mean.

      “Beauty and the Geek” doesn’t make as much sense when gender reversed.

  • PJF

    Not quite on topic, but is there any theory for why laughter takes the physical forms it does? i.e. why the gasping, exhaling, hooting, shaking, etc, rather than, say, slapping one’s cheeks, pulling one’s hair, or make any of the large variety of other possible noises? Related, do different cultures laugh in different ways, or is the human manner of laughing innate?

  • JS Allen

    I like this!

    The flip side is that people who have ideals, have ideals because they can. Ideals are a luxury. Often, a nerd’s seemingly self-destructive hewing to ideals is not because she’s socially awkward, but instead because she knows she has enough horsepower to push through the consequences of following the ideals.

    Get a nerd addicted to drugs or anything else that empties the tank and drives to desperation, and you’ll see someone become an expert at conniving.

  • 笑顔

    Here is a more parsimonious explanation:

    1) People like to laugh at other people, and will do so whenever possible.
    2) Socially savvy people guard against this by various measures (especially conforming).
    3) Nerds pay less attention to defense against social threats, and therefore are highly vulnerable to being laughed at.

  • Dave

    Everyone makes fun of everyone else.Only nerds think it is just them.

    • Matt Knowles

      I don’t see anything here that could lead you to conclude that anyone here thinks it’s “just them” being laughed at.

  • richard silliker

    The juxtaposition is concurrent feelings of dislike and like.

  • Back to the Freudian concept of humor. We disguise our agressive/sexual impulses but when they are released vicariously or by trickery we have an anxiety attack, the symptom of which is laughter.

    I left my blog address, normally I don’t. But as a bonafide nerd, I use humar techniques all the time. Such as, referring to elites by silly nicknames, calling conservatives communists, revealing incongruous coalitions amond politicals, threatening to fire public university professors for incompetence.

    Humor, its great. Go back to the Soviet era in Russia and check out some of their humor. http://www.coldwarjokes.com/

    Nerds are generally active humorists in my opinion.

  • OK, I take on the question of why laughter takes on the form it does. Laughter is a modified form of aggression. Our initial impulse is to attack the source of disrespect revealed in humor, but we suddenly modify impulse because the humor activates the same hidden feelings of disrespect in us.

    • That’s what I thought, but the experts seem to be against us on this one (more that it’s a modified form of primate/mammalian physical play and social bonding).

  • stubydoo

    People laugh at nerds because there is a part of them that admires the nerd.

    There are plenty of non-nerds who pretend to be nerds.

  • MPS

    People also like to make fun of celebrities, including politicians.

    It could be as you say but it could also be that it’s more acceptable to make fun of someone if it is believed “they brought in on themselves.” We have become empathatic enough to get no pleasure from asserting our superiority over a person with Down’s syndrome, but not so much about asserting our superiority over Brittany Spears.

  • Brad

    Have you seen the British TV show The IT Crowd?

  • Anonymous

    Ask Roissy.

  • j r

    Maybe the urge to make fun of nerds is so strong because it’s one of the first groups to called out. In grade school the people most likely to get made fun of are nerds, fat kids and fat nerds. Of course this begs the question of why kids start making fun of nerds in the first place.

    I am going to go with the dissonance thing. A nerd is socially awkward, but intelligent. The perfect candidate for mocking has enough an obvious flaw that making fun of him can boost your status, but not weak enough to where you just look like a bully. That’s why stupid celebrities make such good targets for mocking.

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  • From wikipedia, there’s some indication that laughter occurs in all primates and some other mammals (rats).
    My pet theory was that it signals surrender to an alpha, but apparently the experts think it’s more a response to physical tickling and rough play (maybe abstracted here with human language?), and is important to social bonding.

    • No one in this thread is interested in building off of evidence that laughter is mammalian and primate rather than just human?

      outside of my post, the sense that I’d get from this thread is that laughter is the province only of humans, and that explanations are cultural or grounded solely in natural/sexual selection in human populations.

      • Good point. My guess is that laughter has some basic functions shared by those mammals, and in the case of humans it has been exapted to serve other functions as well.

  • To go with Prof. Hanson’s promiscuous teleology (sorry if this is a misuse of that expression) nerds are farmer archetypes, and the every day socializer have natural preferences in the direction of the forager. Nerds lose individually but win systemically.

    When we use schools to select against forager values, we favor nerds. Lived farmer values can be good for the system, but unfun for the individual constituents.

    Speculative bullshit, but those are my thoughts.

  • William Newman

    I agree that humor is usually all tied up with social status. However, I’m not convinced that that’s an essential element. We seem to be able to find humor in absurd misunderstanding even in those (admittedly rare) cases when I can’t see any possible social status involved. Well-known examples include Rube Goldberg machines and Bambi Meets Godzilla. Private examples include finding humor in a software bug which happens to escapes detection by an unreasonable number of coincidences. (Admittedly Bambi and Godzilla will be anthropomorphized by viewers, so one might wonder whether their status drives the humor. But I think the humor would be similar in a short called “The Birth of the Solar System” showing planets coalescing smoothly out of swirling gas … then being utterly annihilated by collision with two or three overwhelmingly larger objects … then panning 400 light years to the left to where the actual solar system coalesces.)

    Perhaps part of the observed tie to social status is driven in part by how we have so much wired-in support for thinking about social relationships, and so much practice thinking about social relationships, that it’s easier for us to think about sufficiently complicated social systems that we can find satisfyingly absurd situations there? Then it might not be a coincidence that in looking for examples of non-social laughable levels of absurdity I come up with (some) software bugs, because I could easily believe that most of the extremely complicated relationships that people think about are social relationships, and of the exceptions, a large fraction are software systems made practical by computer tech since 1960 or so.

    (Then of course there’s also the obvious tie that inducing or suggesting misunderstanding is an obvious way to be subversive, so anything involving misunderstanding or trickery is likely doomed to be tangled with status considerations.)

  • William Newman

    afterthought: Puns and shaggy dog stories and Lewis-Carroll-style nonsense can also be funny, and in many cases don’t seem to involve status games. And the relevant subset of natural language for any given extract-the-meaning-of-this-statement problem is also, I’d guess, one of the most complicated logical systems that people analyze on a regular basis. (Though there’s a lot of built-in support, so we don’t think about it much.)

  • daedaulus2u, Hanson is quite obviously a nerd himself. He is not using them as a target of abuse, but engaging in a form of consciousness raising identity politics. He actually seeks to raise the status of nerds by pointing out their talents at overtly useful skills, and their reduced proclivity for hypocrisy and conniving (those words don’t have good connotations). Exposing someone’s hypocrisy, and especially point out how they victimize those too innocent/virtuous to use dirty tactics, is a tactic to lower someone’s status.

    H.A, I’ve before only heard the phrase “promiscuous teleology” from here, but it sounds good (sidestepping the perhaps overrated issue of logical etymology) for your usage as well.

  • Re: “As I’ve hinted at before, and will elaborate more on later, I think the essence of humor is our sheer joy at playing homo hypocritus well.”

    I would council checking carefully the existing theories about humor before going there.

  • Humor is a sexually selected trait. Women like men with a GSOH. Such men have good working brains and are less likely to exhibit mood disorders. IMO, this is the main idea that any “sheer joy” hypothesis has to compete with.

    • Or the two theories could be compatible. Humor is sexually attractive because high status men use it to signal their skill at social maneuvering and covert norm violation well.

      • Maybe I am not trying hard enough for a sympathetic reading.

        However, when someone points at what looks to me a lot like a complex adaptation and claims its essence is “our sheer joy” I sometimes find it hard to avoid rolling my eyeballs.

    • I tend to forget the details of natural and sexual selection dogma, but isn’t this part unecessary to your hypothesis according to the dogma: “Such men have good working brains and are less likely to exhibit mood disorders.”

      My general sense is that we as a species are far more charming and pretty than we are existential risk minimizing because these sexual selection effects.

  • ben

    It is tautology to assume that failure is necessarily the result of fault. It is equally likely that arbitrarily assigned social position is hard to shift, leaving the mocked withdrawn and the mocking confident.

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