Laughing at Not Funny Things and the Limits of Introspection

April 26, 2006 | By | 12 Replies More

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.



Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

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 lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (12)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Thom Gross says:

    Hi Erich,

    Very interesting blog! I enjoyed this article because my wife, much more socially evolved than I, is one such laugher at unfunny things. (Though never one to laugh at others' unfunny misfortunes.)

    This blog offers me a respite from my usual obsession with temporal matters, particularly political corruption and the godforsaken war. Good work!

    And Happy 50th Birthday, too!

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    There's a new award winning laughing baby video on Youtube. Here it is:

    And don't forget its famous predecessor:

    And here's 3 in one – check out the quartet halfway through:

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's how to create an episode of contagious laughter. The post includes a lot of other information on laughing as well.

  4. mosso says:

    i think its by innocent we laught at things ,thats really the truth !! because its the health and the nature ; but laughing at not funny things it realy a new sens and meaning that we give for it and is comming from a hight positive and understanding thought ,any way there are ( not funny things )that we cant laught but we can be either sade with understanding or we can be positive and optimistic !!!

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Chimpanzees laugh. Charles Darwin, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, noted that “if a young chimpanzee be tickled—the armpits are particularly sensitive to tickling, as in the case of our children—a more decided chuckling or laughing sound is uttered; though the laughter is sometimes noiseless.” Actually, what primatologists call chimp laughter is more like a breathy pant. It is evoked not only by tickling but also by rough-and-tumble play, games of chasing, and mock attacks—just as with children prior to the emergence of verbal joking at age 5 or 6. For full post, go here.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    "We have such poor insight into the functioning of our own minds that we 'mistake' low mood for a bad memory, poor concentration or impaired problem solving."

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    "Take priming. If you tell people to write down the first three digits of their phone number and then ask them to guess the date of Genghis Khan’s death, they will be more likely to put it in the first millennium, with a three-digit year, than those who are asked without the preliminary. Or framing. If a surgeon tells his patients that a procedure has a 15 percent failure rate, they are likely to decide against it; if he tells them the procedure has an 85 percent success rate, they tend to choose it. Such effects have long been familiar to salesmen and advertisers, but lately they have been studied experimentally. In addition, statistics indicate that the effect of early environment and innate dispositions on later functioning is very marked."

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.”
    Victor Borge (1909 – 2000)

Leave a Reply