Inside Jokes: using humor to reverse engineer the mind.
MIT Press. 2011
This started life as Hurley’s dissertation, but fear not: it is not some dull stodgy academic treatise. Despite being peppered with jokes, however, it is also not a side-splitting read. It is instead a clearly written in-depth account of the authors’ evolutionary cognitive theory of humour. The overarching argument is (roughly):
- All our behaviour, including thinking, is guided by emotions: without some emotional prod we would never make any actual decisions.
- Our emotions have evolved to produce rational behaviours (most of the time).
- Our thinking and decision-making usually needs to be done in real time: we need to react to the tiger now, not once we’ve finished evaluating all the possibilities.
- If we reason speedily with limited and uncertain information, we will make mistakes.
- These mistakes need to be fixed, to stop our mental space becoming clogged up with incorrect inferences.
- Correcting mistakes is hard work, so we have evolved an emotional "reward": mirth, which we experience when we consciously recognise an unconsciously committed incorrect belief (modulo some further conditions).
- This emotion, like others, can be exploited to new ends: here, humour and comedy.
p79. Boredom has its place in driving us out from cognitive malaise. Though curiosity inspires our cognitive apparatus into detailed exertion surrounding particular as-of-yet-unexplained regularities, we would scarcely commence toil at all without the dull pain of boredom to keep us from the simple irresponsibility of just doing nothing. If there is no pressing topic to think about, we still think, and incessantly so, because it hurts not to.
p82. Choosing how to behave under uncertainty requires a heuristic choice process. Good heuristics give excellent approximations much of the time. But, in the (restricted-by-design) areas where they fail, they give predictably—even pathologically—poor results. The emotions are rational, but the system is a heuristic driver of behavior that operates on incomplete information; so we must accept that the emotions will fail us in some ways, such as overreactions and addictions, that are irresolvable.
p120. The need, then, is for a timely and reliable system to protect us from the risks entailed by our own cleverness. Discerning and locating these mistakes would have the immediate payoff of allowing current reasoning to progress without an error (before we act on such errors), but would also provide a legacy for the future, keeping a fallacious conclusion from becoming registered as verity in long-term memory. A mechanism for consistency checking is indispensable for a system that depends crucially on data-intensive knowledge structures that are built by processes that have been designed to take chances under time pressure. Undersupervised and of variable reliability, their contributions need to be subjected to frequent “reality checks” if the organism that relies on them is to maintain its sanity.
Having introduced their thesis, the authors then subject it to various challenges. It needs to account for the diverse range of things we find funny, and yet should also explain why closely related things are not funny. They do this in considerable detail, picking apart and analysing a wide range of humorous and related event. Of course, picking apart a joke destroys its humour; interestingly, the theory even explains why it destroys the humour.
This is a fascinating and well-argued account of a particular aspect of our evolutionary heritage. Recommended. (Some of the example jokes included are even funny.)
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