Tag Archives: Humor

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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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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How Good Are Laughs?

We often underestimate our different were our ancestors from us; we like to assume that even if they wore different costumes on the outside, they felt like us inside. Not true! Consider, for example, how our culture celebrates laughter. One of our worst sins is to lack a sense of humor, to be a fuddy-duddy unable to “take a joke.” But four centuries ago, it seems, attitudes were quite the opposite:

Prior to the eighteenth century, laughter was viewed by most authors almost entirely in negative terms. … All laughter was thought to arise from making fun of someone. Most references to laughter in the Bible, for example, are linked with scorn, derision, mockery, or contempt. … Aristotle … believed that [laughter] was always a response to ugliness or deformity in another person. … Thomas Hobbes saw laughter as being based on a feeling of superiority, or “sudden glory”, resulting from some perception of inferiority in another person. Continue reading "How Good Are Laughs?" »

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Humor As Norm Evasion

As a young engineering and physics student, I was suspicious of the “subtext” and hidden meanings humanities types went on about. Yeah sure some writers might use hidden meanings, but why analyze most texts this way?  And analyzing ordinary human conversation in such terms seemed over the top. I thought, “How convenient for English teachers that only they can explain a novel’s hidden meanings to us?”

But, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Hidden meanings are everywhere. Maybe you can’t see them much when young, but if you keep at it eventually you will. The Homo Hypocritus (i.e., man the sly rule bender) hypothesis I’ve been exploring lately is that humans evolved to appear to follow norms, while covertly coordinating to violate norms when mutually advantageous. A dramatic example of this seems to be the sheer joy and release we feel when we together accept particular norm violations.  Apparently much “humor” is exactly this sort of joy:

The benign-violation [= humor] hypothesis suggests that three conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient for eliciting humor: A situation must be appraised as a [norm] violation, a situation must be appraised as benign, and these two appraisals must occur simultaneously. … People who see the behavior as both a violation and benign will be amused. Those who do not simultaneously see both interpretations will not be amused. …

In five experimental studies, … we found that benign moral violations tend to elicit laughter (Study 1), behavioral displays of amusement (Study 2), and mixed emotions of amusement and disgust (Studies 3–5). Moral violations are amusing when another norm suggests that the behavior is acceptable (Studies 2 and 3), when one is weakly committed to the violated norm (Study 4), or when one feels psychologically distant from the violation (Study 5). …

We investigated the benign-violation hypothesis in the domain of moral violations. The hypothesis, however, appears to explain humor across a range of domains, including tickling, teasing, slapstick, and puns. (more; HT)

Laughing at the same humor helps us coordinate with close associates on what norms we expect to violate together (and when and how). This may be why it is more important to us that close associates share our sense of humor, than our food or clothing tastes, and why humor tastes vary so much from group to group.

Added 14Aug: I don’t mean to claim that all humor is benign norm violations, nor that all such violations are humorous.  Rather, I’d say the pattern fits much better than chance, and seems insightful.  I suggested humor functions in part to help us coordinate with close associates on what norm violations to excuse. This suggests that humorous norm violations could be pretty harmful, but just not to those doing the coordinating. This seems to apply to Vlad’s example; I expect wives to laugh at his joke more than husbands.  This also suggests, as per Evan and Katja, that covertly lowering the status of outsiders, by indirectly “making fun of them” against egalitarian norms, should also be funny.  Perhaps the more general pattern is that covertly conspiring against others tends to be funny.

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I’ve written before about how we are mostly unconscious of our many status moves – ways we constantly act to raise and lower our prestige and dominance relative to those around us.  If anything we are in even more denial about status moves involving smiles, and especially laughter.  We tell ourselves we merely laugh in response to things that are “funny” and no, that has no function at all, it is just a harmless evolutionary accident.  Not true at all:

  • “According to a classic study of laughter … in … the shopping mall – they documented 1200 instances of laughter, and found that only 10 to 20 per cent of them were responses to anything remotely resembling a joke. Most laughter was in fact either triggered by a banal comment or used to punctuate everyday speech. … We are 50 per cent more likely to laugh when speaking than when listening, and 30 times gigglier in a social setting than when alone without a social surrogate such as a television. … Our first laughs occur at between 2 and 6 months of age … triggered by surprise in a safe situation (think peek-a-boo). … It encourages babies to explore the world by making them feel happy and safe. When infants begin to engage in rough-and-tumble play, laughter signals that the intentions are not serious. … Through its catching nature … laughter can unify the mood and behaviour of a group. … An “in” joke can exclude outsiders from a clique, for example. Laughter can be used to show who is boss and malicious laughter is an effective weapon of intimidation.” (more)
  • “Right from the start, boys are the laugh-getters, the buffoons and the school clowns who entertain the giggling girls, … in lonely hearts columns, … men tend to advertise their sense of humour and women seek a funny man. Provine believes this shows … female laughter in the presence of men is a signal of submission. … Many studies have shown that dominant individuals, from tribal elders to workplace bosses, are more likely to orchestrate laughter than their subordinates, using it as a means of wielding power either to bond their followers or to divide and rule.”  (more)
  • “Berk showed 14 volunteers 20-minute clips from humorous television programmes … both cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure fell.” (more)
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I’ll Think of a Reason Later

I just got a lovely gift of a song called "I'll Think of a Reason Later" by Lee Ann Womack.  Maybe some of you already know it.  Here is the chorus:

It may be my family's redneck nature 
Rubbin' off, bringin' out unlady-like behavior 
It sure ain't Christian to judge a stranger 
But I don't like her 
She may be an angel who spends all winter 
Bringin' the homeless blankets and dinner 
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner 
But I really hate her 
I'll think of a reason later


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My Favorite Liar

[the following recounts an exceptionally powerful teaching technique employed by an economics professor of mine at university; teaching fact-checking and skepticism by salting it into the content of his delivery]

One of my favorite professors in college was a self-confessed liar.

I guess that statement requires a bit of explanation.

The topic of Corporate Finance/Capital Markets is, even within the world of the Dismal Science, a exceptionally dry and boring subject matter, encumbered by complex mathematic models and obscure economic theory.

What made Dr. K memorable was a gimmick he employed that began with his introduction at the beginning of his first class:

"Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day." And thus began our ten-week course.

Continue reading "My Favorite Liar" »

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Scott Adams on Bias

To me, Justin Timberlake sounds like a shockingly untalented guy with a lot of musical training. Why do I perceive him that way when millions of his fans do not?  One explanation is that I have excellent taste in music while the people who buy his albums do not. … The other explanation is that I am mentally defective. … I see this situation every day … People e-mail … telling me that Dilbert sucks, despite the fact it’s in 2,000 newspapers … The e-mail I have NEVER received goes like this: “I do not enjoy Dilbert, but since many people do, I assume the problem is on my end. Something is wrong with me and I am just writing to let you know I am defective.” … Describe the last time you disagreed with a popular opinion, about anything, and concluded that the problem is with you?

Hat tip to Eric Crampton.

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Requesting Honesty

An old Bloom County Sunday cartoon has Cutter John in his wheelchair dressed as Santa, asking "And what would you like this year?" to Roland-Ann in his lap:

Truth. I’d like a little truth.  Openness .. Forthrightness … Directness.  For once, I’d just like a couple of those. 

Childhood seems to be one long series of adult deceptions.  Lies … Myths … Half-truths … Fibs.  Yesterday I asked my father what a "libido" is.  He said it’s a kid of guinea pig. 

So I think it would be nice, this Christmas, to get just a little, simple, adult honesty for once.  Yes.  It really would. 

Anyway … Thanks for listening, mister Santa Claus.  Please give my best to Mrs Claus, all the elves, and give Rudolph a big kidss just for me.  Good bye!"

By this point, John has his face in his hand, ashamed, and in the next panel says "I quit!"

This raises the obvious question: why don’t kids ask adults for more honesty, once they see that adults often lie? 

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Data Management

In January I said:

Decision makers talk and act like they want more info, and prediction markets would provide such info.  But deep down I think decision makers know they really don’t need most of the info they collect; they collect it to show they are sharp and up on the latest.   

In today’s Dilbert, Dogbert advises the pointy-haired boss:

You need a dash-board application to track your key metrics.   That way you’ll have more data to ignore when you make your decisions based on company politics.

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