Why do we laugh? Introspection and common sense tell us that we laugh because someone said or did something funny. This is usually incorrect, however. In Laughter (2000), Robert Provine reported the results of his carefully conducted experiments, showing that in social situations, between 80 and 90% of laughing is not a response to jokes or other formal attempts at humor. Rather, most laughing is in response to innocuous statements such as “I’ll see you guys later.” “I should do that, but I’m too lazy” or “I told you so!”
Provine has found that laughing serves a function similar to small talk: it facilitates or maintains social bonds. “Laughing plays a . . . nonlinguistic role in social bonding solidifying friendships and pulling people into the fold. You can define ‘friends’ and ‘group members’ as those with whom you laugh.” In The Human Story, Robin Dunbar cites studies finding that laughing is correlated with the release of endorphins and that this release of hormones facilitates bonding.
Unless we’re at a comedy club, then, laughing usually serves a function much different than common sense and introspection suggest. The research of Provine and Dunbar is but one of many examples where conventional wisdom and introspection fail to explain human behavior. Where one truly wants to understand human cognition, one must turn to the scientific method.
We need to keep this caveat in mind because common sense seduces us with powerful illusions, illusions that look like uncontestable “facts” to those of us who believe we can merely sit around and think in order to figure out how human animals think. Although the image was compelling for centuries, the sun did not really go around a flat Earth. Likewise, science has shown that our ears do not operate like microphones and our eyes do not work like cameras. “I” am not really like a little person who dwells in my head. Likewise, we don’t think the way we think we think. We need rigorous science to see around our own corner.
Love is not ultimately about sonnets and chocolate hearts—it’s about a species that survived because it put an immense premium on procreation. The engine of love is an expression of a deeply ingrained propensity to procreate. Likewise, we don’t eat because we are “hungry,” but because our bodies have been designed to signal the need for nutrition (we merely label this urge “hunger”).
We don’t often know why we do what we do, despite our willingness to articulate ad hoc “reasons.” Descartes held that the “mind” consisted only of that which was conscious; if wasn’t conscious, it wasn’t mental. Numerous experiments have disproved his view, however. See Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (2005) by Antonio Demasio, Searching for Memory (1996), by Daniel Schacter, and The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul (1995), by Paul M. Churchland. Numerous other “obvious” explanations of human behavior have fallen under careful study guided by the scientific method. See, for example, [on reconciliation, social status and power sharing] Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal (2005), [on our constant use of metaphor and other imaginative linguistic devices] Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), by Johnson and Lakoff, [on the need to worship] Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett (2006), [on the Darwinian explanation of mental illness] Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine (1996), by Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams and [on the existence of sibling rivalry and the effects of birth order] Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, by Frank J. Sulloway (1997).
Though much maligned regarding many of his theories, Freud has been completely vindicated in his finding that human consciousness is only the tip of the cognitive iceberg. Based upon mere introspection, we “haven’t a clue” as to how we perform even basic cognitive tasks. Science of the Mind (1991), by Owen Flanagan. The meticulous experiments of Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman, [see “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” in Judgment and Decision Making (1986)] show that there is no simple brain mechanism that would allow us to predict any complex decision-making. Instead, we are big watery bags of heuristics, we get by, often enough, using hit and miss strategies. Even with regard to “simple” perception (sounds, shapes and colors) we only know that we know without knowing how we know. See The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Touchstone Books (1996), by Joseph LeDoux.
It’s not words or thoughts or thinkers (or turtles) all the way down. When we dig deeply enough, we eventually encounter the stuff that comprises us: tens of billions of neurons, each of them inter-connected to thousands of others. We are animals: complex and elegantly designed human animals. These brains weren’t just tossed into our skulls as an afterthought. Thought is thoroughly embodied. The body cannot be ignored when trying to determine why we do the things that we do.
We often do things for reasons other than those based on “folk psychology.” Our most impressive gains in understanding cognition aren’t based on common sense or introspection, but they are due to meticulous experimentation.
In sum, whenever we discuss why people join religions, fight wars or take care of their young, it is a good default plan to rein in common sense, to be wary of introspection and to pay close attention to cognitive science.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Laughing rats | Dangerous Intersection | June 4, 2009
- Deeply and ineffably religious, on the couch | Dangerous Intersection | September 19, 2010