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The Science of Humor 344

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-put-a-dollar-in-a-change-machine-and-nothing-changed dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The sense of humor is a ubiquitous human trait, yet rare or non-existent in the rest of the animal kingdom. But why do humans have a sense of humor in the first place? Cognitive scientist (and former programmer) Matthew Hurley says humor (or mirth, in research-speak) is intimately linked to thinking and is a critical task in human cognition because a sense of humor keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality. 'We think the pleasure of humor, the emotion of mirth, is the brain's reward for discovering its mistaken inferences,' says Hurley, co-author of Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. With humor, the brain doesn't just discover a false inference — it almost simultaneously recovers and corrects itself. For example, read the gag that's been voted the funniest joke in the world by American men. So why is this joke funny? Because it is misleading, containing a small, faulty assumption that opens the door to a costly mistake. Humor is 'when you catch yourself in an error, like looking for the glasses that happen to be on the top of your head. You've made an assumption about the state of the world, and you're behaving based on that assumption, but that assumption doesn't hold at all, and you get a little chuckle.'"
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The Science of Humor

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 27, 2011 @09:26AM (#38181384)

    Now, this is funny: Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!

    • by Niedi (1335165)
      ahahahahahaaaargh *choke* *dies*
    • by johny42 (1087173) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @10:28AM (#38181660)

      This is consistent with what TFA says:

      One intriguing result was that Germans -- not renowned for their sense of humour -- found just about everything funny and did not express a strong preference for any type of joke.

    • by jpapon (1877296)
      Zat's not funny!

      heh

      hehehe

      hehehehehehe

      argh! *dies*

    • I don't know if you should be condemned or rewarded for killing off a large percentage of German readers.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Big Brother is Watching You.

  • Minsky 1980 (Score:5, Informative)

    by cstacy (534252) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @09:36AM (#38181422)
  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @09:41AM (#38181442)

    Humor is when you catch yourself in an error

    But The Funniest joke in the (english speaking?) World reckons that people from different cultures find different styles of humour to be more/less funny.

    So there appears to be a conflict here. You'd expect everyone's brain to be wired to catch the same sorts of errors or false inferences, yet if there's a cultural component to humour that contradicts the "error" theory.

    • by ArsenneLupin (766289) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @10:02AM (#38181554)

      yet if there's a cultural component to humour that contradicts the "error" theory.

      Indeed. Vast categories of jokes make fun of a group (different race, different cultural background, certain hobbies, certain lifestyles, etc.), including this one by the way. The stereotype this plays on is "hunters are stupid rednecks who shoot first and think later". Hunters would probably find the joke less funny but probably the "researchers" didn't define a category for them, so it didn't how up on their stats...

      • by clintp (5169) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @10:29AM (#38181670)

        The stereotype this plays on is "hunters are stupid rednecks who shoot first and think later". [...] Hunters would probably find the joke less funny but probably the "researchers" didn't define a category for them, so it didn't how up on their stats...

        Those stupid redneck hunters often have an enormous ability to laugh at themselves that shouldn't be discounted. I haven't hunted in a while (but my NRA membership is still current) and I found the joke quite funny.

      • I immediately thought the same thing, then I realized that racist potty humor doesn't really challenge the brain that much, so therefore really isn't that funny. I'm looking at you Jeff Dunham.

    • by Hermanas (1665329)

      From TFA:

      If a sense of humor is part of our basic, human thinking machinery, then why can’t we agree about what’s funny?

      What’s universal about humor is the process, not the content. Everybody faces every situation with different beliefs, knowledge, and understandings about the world. And different understandings lead to different assumptions and therefore different false assumptions.

      So there's not necessarily a conflict - you'd expect different cultures to have different assumptions about the world (for geographical and linguistic reasons, perhaps), and therefore have a different sense of humor.

    • ... say your girl is a lousy lay, but I want you to know that that's not my experience at all.

      • by petes_PoV (912422)

        ... say your girl is a lousy lay, but I want you to know that that's not my experience at all.

        They're probably right. I know your wife thinks that too!

      • a really pretty waitress once found me attractive and asked me if I wanted some super sex.

        but at my age, I opted for the soup.

    • by mollymoo (202721)
      > So there appears to be a conflict here. You'd expect everyone's brain to be wired to catch the same sorts of errors or false inferences, yet if there's a cultural component to humour that contradicts the "error" theory.

      That would only be the case if everybody made the same errors and false inferences in the first place, but our view of the world and the inferences we make are very much influenced by our culture.
  • The real joke (Score:5, Insightful)

    by oldhack (1037484) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @09:48AM (#38181484)
    The real joke in "the funniest joke" is the starting line:

    The world's funniest joke has been revealed after a year-long search by scientists.

  • by Rosy At Random (820255) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @09:50AM (#38181494) Homepage

    This makes sense in the context of something I've noticed: the more extreme and deeply-held your views, the less likely you are to have a functioning sense of humour. In particular, hard-core religious people seem to have none whatsoever. If your dogma is so entrenched and rigid, then you aren't going to make self-correction and ambiguity a strong part of your mental tool-kit.

    Never trust someone without a sense of humour, kids.

    (Of course, too much can be a bad thing, too, at least insofar as maniacal giggling whilst ripping your still-living victims organs out can be considered humorous...)

    • How about jokes perpetuating stereotypes about minorities or whatever strongly-held views the audience has? Jokes that would offend an average audience but not the intended one.

      Sadly, I don't have any deeply religious friends to experiment on.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        That feels like a different kind of humour - not at one's own expectations being subverted, but at an Other's perceived shortcomings being exploited in a status re-affirming way.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dak664 (1992350)

      That fits with my view that laughter is an interrupted defense mechanism. Ideologues have no other running tasks to interrupt the foreground process.

    • by tverbeek (457094)

      That isn't funny!

    • by TheLink (130905) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @11:07AM (#38181882) Journal

      In particular, hard-core religious people seem to have none whatsoever.

      Try walking into a Christian bookstore and asking for their humour section (often there isn't one, or it's pretty sparse, or it's in the children's section). If there isn't one, you can make remarks like "What? Christians have no sense of humour?".

      FWIW, I'm a Christian, and I was actually looking for this book: http://www.amazon.com/Fearfully-Wonderfully-Weird-Screwball-Wittenburg/dp/0310287316 [amazon.com]

      Seriously though, it may be because those "hard core" ultrareligious sorts live in fear (which IMO is suboptimal). It's not funny if you feel unsafe.

      Safe and secure. That's why good guy friends can slap each other on the back, throw insults and do all sorts of other stuff - they know they are safe, genuinely no harm is ever intended. And that's why children are laughing if daddy throws them up in the air, and of course catches them. That's often the difference between a funny prank and a malicious act. If the victim feels safe and is safe, it's funny. If it's not, it's not funny.

      maniacal giggling whilst ripping your still-living victims organs out can be considered humorous.

      They say beauty is only skin deep, but I love you from the bottom of your heart. Hey be thankful I didn't I "love" you from the heart of your bottom... What's the matter, cat got your tongue? Ooops, looks like she did.

      Bwahahaha.

    • by Paul Slocum (598127) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @12:52PM (#38182414) Homepage Journal
      "In particular, hard-core religious people seem to have none whatsoever."

      I think maybe you're confusing the "Pharisees" of today with real followers. Most people who go to church stubbornly ignore the bulk of what Jesus said. I've probably read more religious philosophy than anything else, and in my study and personal experience I've found the opposite of what you're saying -- that the few people who really live The Way have a very active sense of humor. A few examples off the top of my head are CS Lewis, Ghandi, and Neem Karoli Baba.
  • by srussia (884021)
    From TFA:"Bizarrely, computer analysis of the data also showed that jokes containing 103 words were thought to be especially funny. The winning "hunters" joke was 102 words long.

    [...] He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, so now what?
  • yet rare or non-existent in the rest of the animal kingdom

    The reason we don't see it so much in the animal kingdom is two-fold:
    1. We're lousy observers, bringing our presumptions with us;
    2. There's fewer opportunities.

    To make the claim that it's rare or even non-existent (in other words, you don't even know) with zero proof (and something that's contradicted by observation of animals at play or interactions of animals and their owners) is just plain junk.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I'm sure they conducted extension interviews with animals before announcing their findings. Honestly, when was the last time you heard an animal tell a joke?

      • When's the last time you saw an animal do something just for fun? From squirrels teasing dogs (they do it in the wild all the time, and I used to have a pet squirrel that would jump on my Newfie's tail, then his head, then hop back to my shoulder or go running around my legs at the knee, just to tease him.

        Sure, the dog could have just waited until the squirrel stopped and then killed him, but he never did.

        Same squirrel - I'd be typing away, and every once in a while he'd quickly hop on the keyboard to insert a few extra characters. Then he'd stand there and look at me, and I'd poke him lightly in the nose trying to get him to understand "don't do that!" He understood - he also understood that he could get away with it.

        The more intelligent birds do it too. Get yourself a pet crow - crows also are tool-makers, as are several other animals, so it's not surprising to see that they can also be intentionally funny. Humour, even slapstick, is the way we deal with aggressive impulses less destructively. All humour has an element of meanness in it, from teasing to outright "nasty show" stuff.

        • by artor3 (1344997) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @03:37PM (#38183400)

          You're projecting. The squirrel didn't understand that it was inserting characters into your stream of text and annoying you. He didn't understand he was pranking you. All he understood was that you were just sitting there wiggling your fingers for some reason, and he could make you stop and pay attention to him for a bit by stepping on the clicky surface.

          Animals play for some pretty well established reasons, reasons which are largely the same for (young) humans. It builds social skills, locomotive skills, and (where objects are involved) fine motor control. But for them to enjoy teasing and pranking each other, they'd need to have thoughts about another creature's thoughts. Humans are able to to take this out to the fourth or fifth order before getting confused ("I know that Bob knows that Sue knows that Bob knows that I know..."). With animals, great apes have been shown capable of second-order beliefs (but no further), and no other animals have demonstrated this capacity at all. This is unsurprising, since very few animals have even been able to demonstrate self-awareness with the well-known mirror test.

          There is no doubt that some animals are smart and self-aware. Great apes, dolphins, corvids, and elephants have all demonstrated self-awareness, and I'm in no way suggesting that they are mindless automatons the way some philosophers once believed. But you're attributing a much higher level of thought to them, one which scientists have often tested for and never found (except in great apes).

          • by tomhudson (43916)
            Never said that the squirrel was aware that it was inserting characters into the text stream - just that it was aware that it bugged me.

            Dogs and cats pass the mirror test just fine. They know the difference, and they know its them and not some other dogs' image, since if it's a strange dog, they'll turn around to attack.

            They also know the diff. between the TV and an image in a mirror, so you might want to rethink all that m- your so-called "science" is decades out of date.

            • by artor3 (1344997)

              The squirrel was not aware that it bugged you, and dogs and cats do not pass the mirror test. That has been shown time and time again and I challenge you to cite a study showing otherwise. And I'm not talking about some pet owner with a youtube video that he declares to show his pet passing.

              You are being irrational.

      • by Kiffer (206134) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @02:38PM (#38183076)

        Clearly you don't read enough bash.org

        http://bash.org/?334762 [bash.org]

          I swear to god
          I've just heard a duck tell a joke
          there was as group of ducks on a pond near where i live
          one of the ducks was quacking away looking straight at a group of like 10 ducks
          then he stopped and all the other ducks went mental

    • by TheLink (130905)

      Yeah, some time back I was thinking that perhaps while creatures like amoebas and ants might not be smart, they might not actually be that stupid.

      But how are they going to show their intelligence given their limitations? You're not going to be able to communicate an IQ quiz to them.

      Same goes for humour - they might find things funny, but what do you expect them to say to you?

      I do know that at least some dogs have a sense of humour. I believe other animals have too. Especially animals that play. Even rats pl

    • by Calydor (739835)

      There's the big problem. Just as you're unlikely to see humor from human research subjects in a controlled environment (let's just think prison here) you won't see it from animals in the same situation, so most of the "animals have a sense of humor" stories will remain unverifiable anecdotes.

      I have a few of my own. My old dog used to find it hilarious to throw her favorite ball under a wardrobe, and then stand there wagging like crazy while I was wiggling around on the floor trying to reach it. Did she want

      • The cat jumping out at the kid didn't intend to kill and eat the child, but it's play hunting just the same. What do cats do for fun? Stalking, chasing, ambushing. It's all about improving skills needed for catching their next meal in the wild.

    • by plopez (54068) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @03:19PM (#38183308) Journal

      The only time I find animals funny is when their flavor is a bit "off". As in:

      Two cannibals are eating a clown. One cannibal looks at the other and asks, "Does this taste funny to you?"

  • by Baron_Yam (643147) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @10:32AM (#38181684)

    Am I the only one who noticed that the 'funniest joke' wasn't all that funny... then read the rest of the article and wondered what they'd cut out to get the 102-word joke down to less than 80?

    Just what could be in those 20-something words to make the joke so much funnier?

    • I hadn't noticed the shortened word count. I also didn't find it funny.

      Timing is everything and maybe those missing 20 words while not being necessary to the "joke" are essential to the timing.

      This cartoon is my favourite joke:
      http://svalko.org/data/2011_11_05_17_55_964161_1.jpeg [svalko.org]

      Tim.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 27, 2011 @10:34AM (#38181688)

    “We don't allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” says the bartender.

    A neutrino walks into a bar.

  • My dog watches Seinfeld but I don't know if it's for the jokes.
  • If you think humor or "mirth" is rare or missing in animals you haven't been paying attention, or you're too concerned with your colleges accusations of anthropomorphism.

  • According to the funniest-joke-in-the-world article, jokes with 103 words were considered especially funny, however the winning joke has 102 words. That supports my opinion that the joke works a little better if you change the line to "First, let's make sure he's really dead." It's a more plausible phrasing that makes the emergency-services person's intention clearer (to the audience), but works equally well when misunderstood by the hunter.

  • by angel'o'sphere (80593) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @11:56AM (#38182138) Homepage Journal

    It is likely hard to test how humorous animals are as their mimic is hard to rate or nto at all. E.g. a raven who has just stolen the food of another raven, hiding behind a bush and watching the other raven upset jumping around the hiding place. If you see how the watching raven is behaving you get easy the impression he is laughing his ass off. However without a brain scan we can not "proof" this (providing we can figure where the humour center / laughing center in bird brain is).

    I mean every few years we get surprised by some research that says: figured that a lizard can learn under wich cup the reward is, and that every mistake of choosing the cup leads to a longer waiting time for the next "test + reward". Doh, so an animal with a brain of the size of to rice corns can learn.

    With birds, especially doves, they made experiments about counting and simple arithmetic. You have two bowls with a few grains. And a switch that can be activated with the peak of the bird. The test is to let the bird peek on that switch as often as the sum of the two bowls of grains are. The birds learned that pretty fast. One particular case is this: the dove stopped in front of the switch. It had figured it either has miscounted or miscalculated. So it went back to the bowls (now empty) and repeated the pickings in each bowl and "calculated/counted" again. Then it activated the switch successful.

    Or you now about this parrot, where a researcher taught a few hundred words? The parrot started to correct other parrots when they practiced "speech". He could understand and make simple english sentences, like "I want to go into the garden", "Give me apple".

    My assumption is that most live is able to learn, a smaller amount is "intelligent" to a certain level, and a smaller part is so intelligent that it also has humour. The question is more: why is everyone neglecting this and assuming that we humans are unique?

    Another story: a cat is proudly prancing on the top of a roof. It slipped and avalanched down the roof into the roof gutter/rain pipe. After it landed it hid in the gutter for a moment (5 - 6 seconds) then it carefully stuck its head out and watched around: "did someone see me?" was written on her forehead. When she was sure no one saw her she continued to "prance" along the rain pipe ... if she had no humour, how can she be felt ashamed of falling down the roof?

  • by drumlight (1244276) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @11:57AM (#38182146)
    How do you make a duck soulful?

    Put it in the microwave till it's Bill Withers.
  • by Oligonicella (659917) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @12:45PM (#38182382)
    Somebody got paid to do a study any Henny Youngman era comedian could have told them the result of.
  • wit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by martyb (196687) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @12:53PM (#38182422)
    "Wit is intellect, dancing."

    Sorry that I don't know the author, but I've found much wisdom in those few words. Perhaps it explains why puns and double entendre(sp?) are so popular?

  • by RazorSharp (1418697) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @02:16PM (#38182922)

    "We laugh so we may not cry" - Roger Ebert

    "So, in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice to laugh or cry. No animal does either. We do both, depending on the season and the need." - Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes)

    This cognitive scientist seems to me to be only looking at a specific type of joke - the sleight of hand ones. He doesn't seem to account for the dark humorists - guys like Kurt Vonnegut, Danny DeVito, Bobcat Goldthwait or Woody Allen - who confront their audience with things that are so sad that all you can do is laugh so you don't cry. He also doesn't account for why people laugh for joy (or cry tears of joy). In Kurt Vonnegut's non-fiction A Man Without a Country, he does a great job of analyzing humor and it doesn't require cognitive science (I went to grab it but realized I loaned it to a friend).

    Some other things that need to be accounted for: Why people with Asperger's syndrome tend to lack humor or have very strange senses of humor. Why does my friend's wife consider all my favorite comedians to be offensive and unfunny (how can anyone not enjoy Robin Williams' stand-up?) and I consider her sources of comedy to be banal and unfunny? We were watching Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad, for instance, and my friend and I were laughing so hard we had to pause the movie a couple times until we could compose ourselves. During that same scene his wife was on the verge of tears, calling us sick fucks for laughing. She thought the movie was a very sad drama! She couldn't even sit through Sleeping Dogs Lie.

    Some questions are best left for philosophy and the question of humor is definitely one of them. Understanding what the brain does when a person is confronted with a humorous situation doesn't really explain why people have a sense of humor and what humor really is. All the examples here are the sleight of hand jokes, and his conclusion that they're funny because they're basically brain farts was something that Vonnegut already concluded about these jokes without studying the human brain. Then there's also toilet humor - completely unaccounted for in this guy's examples.

    Vonnegut claimed this to be the funniest joke in the world, which is one of the sleight of hand type jokes this guy is focussing on:

    "Last night I had this crazy dream where I was eating flannel cakes. When I woke up, the blanket was gone!"

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @04:49PM (#38183886) Journal

    According to the article the world's funniest joke is 102 words long. Also, it is claimed that jokes 103 words long are the "funniest" length. Finally jokes with the word "duck" in them also are funnier.

    Therefore change "there were two hunters..." to:

    "there were two DUCK hunters..."

    (Not only have you now included the word "duck" but you've know made the joke the optimal length! Did I really have to explain that?)

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. -- Woody Allen

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