July 9, 2008

"The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor"

Kate Melville writes:

A new book, The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor, examines the mechanism and function of humor, identifying the reason humor is common to all human societies, its fundamental role in the evolution of homo sapiens and its continuing importance in the cognitive development of children.

"The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively it explains that humor occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter," explained author Alastair Clarke, a British science writer.

Clarke's investigation focuses on the basics of the humorous response, in contrast to previous theories that only ever applied to a small proportion of all instances of humor, many of them stipulating necessary content or social conditions either in the humor itself or around the individual experiencing it.

Clarke argues that it is not the content of the stimulus that makes us laugh, but the patterns underlying it that provide the potential for sources of humor. He identifies the importance of pattern recognition in human evolution and places humor squarely in that context. "An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings.

It's funny, but speaking of pattern recognition, that reminded me that I wrote back in 1999:
The subject of humor is a notorious black hole for serious theorizing. Nonetheless, I'd like to plow ahead and discuss ethnic humor, even though I am almost incapable of remembering specific jokes except the most embarrassingly awful stinkers.

Clearly, there are a lot of different kinds of humor -- Steve Pinker does a fine job of discussing in "How The Mind Works" the kind of humor (often pun-based) that changes the frame of reference...

Most ethnic humor, however, is a subset of the "observational" humor that is currently dominant in the entertainment marketplace among Americans with 3 digit IQ's: e.g., the kind of Harvard Lampoon-derived gag-writing behind The Simpsons, Letterman's Top 10 lists and many sit-coms like Seinfeld.

I would suggest a very simple evolutionary model for accounting for the appeal of this kind of pattern recognition humor. Noticing similarities and differences is one of the fundamental methods of gaining knowledge about the world. As the motto of the college in Animal House puts it, "Knowledge Is Good," or to be less moralistic, knowledge is useful because it allows us to make more accurate predictions about reality, which allows us to make better decisions. Down through prehistory, people who made better decisions propagated their genes more than people who made lousier decisions.

For observations to be funny, however, they can't just be true, they need to be more vivid and memorable than plain truth. Thus, as a mnemonic device joketellers exaggerate truth to the point of logical absurdity. Laughter, then, would be a form of brain candy that natural selection has devised for us to make us enjoy learning patterns.

Ethnic humor falls into two classes: "Polish jokes" and "stereotype" humor. The former is the (now thankfully fading) American version of a nearly universal phenomenon of telling jokes about stupid people (another universal phenomenon) and giving the role of the idiot to a member of another ethnic group: "Q. How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" "A. Three, one to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder." The latter ("stereotype humor") is of a more closely observed sort that actually has some bearing in reality to traits that correlate with the group: "Q. How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" "A. That's not funny!"

Polish jokes: There is an obvious evolutionary benefit to having humans reflect upon and laugh at stupid ways to do things. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly (due to kin selection), we often try to claim that idiotic acts are an attribute of some other ethnic group than our own whom we dislike. (I always wondered why, of all the ethnic groups in America, there were all these nasty jokes about one of the most inoffensive of all immigrant groups?)

Stereotype jokes -- "Observational humor" also dominates stand-up comedy today, which is now largely concerned with pointing out the differences between the sexes and ethnic groups. ... Thus, you can learn more about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. today from watching late-night HBO comedy series like Chris Rock, Tracey [Ullman] Takes On, and Arliss than from reading New York Times editorials.

"Serious" journalists tend to believe that "funny" and "serious" are by definition mutually exclusive, when an evolutionary perspective would suggest that much of what is funny to us is funny because it's serious.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

What about the "Quest For Fire" theory? That humour, jackass humour at least, was invented by women and men more or less went along with it to get laid?

More than one woman has told me that they finds others' misfortunes (falling down, especially) hilarious. I don't get it, but I'm a proud caveman.

Oh, and this is as good a place as any to plug the following:

COMICS FOR FREEDOM RALLY to be held at The Comedy Bar (945B Bloor West) on Saturday, July 19 in Toronto. Canadian Comic, Guy Earle, is holding a benefit show, celebrating 40 years of stand-up comedy, to raise money for his impending Human Rights Tribunal. Guy is being taken before the Human Rights Tribunal based on his comebacks to a heckler during a Vancouver comedy night back in May 2007.

Anonymous said...

how did the dumb polack jokes get started? isn't their national IQ on par with the rest of northern europe?

Anonymous said...

Q: "I always wondered why, of all the ethnic groups in America, there were all these nasty jokes about one of the most inoffensive of all immigrant groups?"

A: Steve, these jokes are Borscht Belt humor. The poor poles are not mocked for anything they did in this country, but all those pograms they committed against God's chosen people back in the old country. (Sascha Baron Cohen's Borat movie is basically one big Polish (i.e., East European Peasant) joke (Borat has nothing to do with real Kazakhs). And hey compared to the chosen people, the Poles with their 100 "IQ Goyische Koepfe" are stupid!

Anonymous said...

I recall a lot of ethnic jokes that, as a kid in the sixties, I didn't understand.
Such as: How do you identify an Italian tank? It has one gear forward, four in reverse.

I didn't know how Italians comported themselves during WWII, so I didn't understand why Italians were being conveyed as cowards. Later in life, I understood them to be cast from the attitudes of american soldiers and their experiences with Italian armed forces at the time.

Perhaps because the Polish army was still using charge horses when WWII began, and were mostly eastern european farmers, they were attacked by whatever ethnic or national group was around at the time. I also noticed Polish jokes in the United States were repeated in Europe, but Poles were replaced with French, English, or German, depending on who was telling the joke.
Finally, the Poles are one of the few "minorities" in the United States that didn't have any anti-defamation league organizations, unlike the Italians and others, so you never heard an outright Italian joke, certainly no Mexican or Black jokes on Johnny Carson, though he was known to tell common Polish jokes on occasion.

Anonymous said...

>Steve, these jokes are Borscht Belt humor.

absolutely dumb polack jokes dumb blonde jokes etc are manifestations of jewish rage toward gentiles.

borat is anger transmitted through the vehicle of comedy. that is the jewish tradition and to some extent the comic tradition generally. but jewish comedy is angrier more sarcastic and more passive aggressive than most other cultures. comedy culture can be harmless or vicious. certainly the jewish "roast" is an extremely vicious form of ceremony.

most comics are raging inside. the late great american irish george carlin was typical.

michael farris said...

IINM minority humor is almost always pretty rough compared to majority humor. I think one reason might be to toughen up members for dealing with people outside the group.

Anonymous said...

Arthur Koestler's discussion of laughter in the Enclyclopedia Britannica was consistent with, but slighlty different from, these theories.

Koestler wrote that it all started with the tickle: babies felt the hint of a threat when a parent touched their vulnerable bellies. Then, realizing it wasn't a threat because the touch came from a parent, babies released their stomach muscles in the original 'belly laugh.'

All laughter was thus based, in Koestler's view, on a hinted threat, that turned out not to be a threat, so that tensed stomach muscles could be released. As the baby grows up, he learns to discern this threat-release pattern in intellectualized ways where the threat is simply one direction of thought and the release is a quick switch in a different direction. Oh, and it helps to have a 'K' sound in the switch line. Which is why jokes involving chickens work particularly well.

All babies babies do not grow up the same way, however. I saw Eddie Murphy do a Polish joke in a Second Avenue bar in NYC in August 1981, the month before he became famous overnight on Saturday Night Live. A very large blonde man in the audience stood up with a beer bottle in his hand and started for the stage. Management immediately had two even larger bouncers surround the guy, while another employee got Murphy off the stage.

Anonymous said...

....and generally, the truer the underlying stereotype, the funnier the joke, and the more "offensive" some lefty will find it. There's an almost mathematical correlation between these things.

Anonymous said...

1/ The idea that blonde jokes are a result of Jewish rage against Gentiles doesn't work. In non-humorous stories from the same people the blonde is usually the 'sweet good girl' and the brunette the 'devious bad girl-femme fatale' (eg Dynasty, Ginger Rogers vs Cyd Charisse) although there are exceptions (eg Fatal Attraction).

2/ Steve has explained the importance of receiving humor. But as to the importance of giving humor he hasn't.

Anonymous said...

Not so sure Carlin was raging on the inside Francis. After I got a little older and past his 7 words you can't say, he struck me as an unhappy, nihilistic sort.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps because the Polish army was still using charge horses when WWII began,

This is a myth. The Poles didn't use charge cavalry in WWII. They did have a lot of mounted infantry, but the horses were only used for transport. That wasn't at all unusual for nations in WWII as cars were not yet that common in most of the world and roads were not what they are now.

I was really surprised to learn about Polish jokes from Americans. There is no general Eastern European stereotype of dumb Poles. (There probably was among one ethnic group, but it vanished in WWII; as others said, they're probably the source of American Pole jokes.) There are a few ethnicities that get the "dumb peasant" shtick from all their neighbours (Finns, Albanians etc), but Poles aren't one of them.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you ignore the role humor plays in creating a "social lubricant." You can see this pretty clearly in combat. Men involved in combat often tell and listen to jokes constantly. And combat is about as high stress as you can imagine.

Ethnic humor jokes in the US was probably a coping mechanism. If you laugh at a group they're not that threatening.

Human beings are the most supercharged, emotionally and mentally, animals on Earth. It's no surprise that lots of coping mechanisms end up helping people get along instead of kill each other.

As far as "Jewish rage" against blonde gentiles, a goodly number of Ashkenazi Jews are blonde or blondish. Example: Israeli lovely Alona Tal.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps because the Polish army was still using charge horses when WWII began,

This is a myth. The Poles didn't use charge cavalry in WWII. They did have a lot of mounted infantry, but the horses were only used for transport."

I'm sorry, but you are absolutely wrong.

In 1939, in The battle of Krojanty, the Poles led a successful cavalry charge against German infantry.

albertosaurus said...

cwsbiczI remember when all the black, mexican, and other ethnic jokes became transmogrified overnight to polish jokes.

At the time it seemed to me to be a clear case of early "political correctness". Initially I and many others were mystified. No one I knew was Polish or even knew anyone who was Polish. Then it became clear that there was this large body of ethnic jokes that could no longer be applied to one of the newly emerging "protected classes". In order to protect this trove of folklore wealth, blacks and mexicans became Poles.

Blacks were famously potrayed as stupid in the forties and fifties (e.g. Rochester and Stepin Fetchit). Mexicans were also often portrayed as stupid (e.g. Jose Jimenez) well into the sixties. But suddenly only Poles could be the butt of stupid jokes.

At the time whenever I had heard the term Pole I had thought of Chopin. Later I learned to accept the term Pole as a convention invented to protect us from the realities of human diversity.

We need a historian.

Edward said...

Laughter evolved in humans to be an emotional safety value. Given an emotional shock if the event that caused the emotional shock was a false alarm (- it's your brother rustling in the bushes, not a tiger) there needs an alternative to fight, flight or being stunned.

You laugh when your brain enters a brief state of emotional shock that does not result in a either stunned, fight or flight response but redirects the nerve inputs outward through a a safe release channel - laughter.

Humour is that which can trigger that brief state of shock that is not a shock after all. Physical touch - tickling - can cause laughter in children (less so as they become adults because tickling isn't funny if you expect it) because the action briefly shocks them.

If humans were unable to safely process false emotional alarms through humour we would be too stressed to live.

Anonymous said...

"In 1939, in The battle of Krojanty, the Poles led a successful cavalry charge against German infantry."

Well, anonymous, I stand corrected. However, my point that there was nothing dumb at all about the Poles' use of horses during WWII and that still stands (pointing out a successful charge doesn't invalidate my main point).

There is a common myth of Poles charging tanks wielding lances. *That* isn't true. In fact, it's simply German war propaganda that was swallowed whole by arrogant Westerners (that arrogance *should've* died with the equally rapid defeat of Western forces in France, but of course it didn't).

Anonymous said...

A Jesuit from St.John's traced these slurs (tv, film, even lp notes) to the original person responsible. Each 'n' every search yielded a similar source. See "The Making of a Stereotype" Kosciuszko Foundation Monthly Newsletter, XXIX, Nos.4&8 (Sept'74 & Dec'75)

Anonymous said...

Re Polish cavalry and tanks etc.

I think the allies, and the Germans to some extent, both liked to buy into the idea that German victories were the result of numerical and technological superiority.

ie they had tanks and the Polish didnt. Later they had good tanks and the French and British had poor ones. In reality the French had more tanks than the Germans (esp when you throw in the British contingent) and they were not hugely worse than most German tanks.

The Germans were better at fighting, tactically and strategically than the Poles, French & British (which is why the German loss of the battle of Britain marked a turning point). Much safer for the Poles and everyone else to say they had the wrong equipment etc even if it made them look daft - horses vs tanks.

Anonymous said...

Well it was predictable that one this blog "the Jews" would be blamed for Polack jokes, but I believe it's not true. Iread that Polack jokes were invented by Irish-Americans in Chicago, which is plausible as the I-A's didn't want to share their domination of the system and its rewards with incoming P-As. There is a touch of irony that in England these Polack jokes were recycled as Irish jokes. The "How many Irishmen does it take to change a lightbulb?" joke was quite common, even tho' it doesn't make sense in Britain where most lightbulbs have bayonet, not screw, fittings. I guess the people telling it must have been fairly dumb. I have not noticed any actual Polish jokes being told in Britain since the recent huge influx of Poles, even tho many British tradesmen would like to claim that their new Polish competitors are substandard.

Anonymous said...

John - you still have to turn a bayonet bulb to fit it.

Anonymous said...

"A Jesuit from St.John's traced these slurs (tv, film, even lp notes) to the original person responsible. Each 'n' every search yielded a similar source."

....and that was....who? This is not exactly hot off the press in Time magazine and my google seach did not yield the text of this article.

Anonymous said...

"I have not noticed any actual Polish jokes being told in Britain since the recent huge influx of Poles, even tho many British tradesmen would like to claim that their new Polish competitors are substandard"

At the time of the Polish influx the quality of British tradesmen was so low that the Poles immediately acquired a reputation for good work. Personally, I've seen great work from a recently arrived Jamaican carpenter and terrible work from a Lithuanian Russian - there's tons of Russians in Britain now; not oligarchs but working class Russians from the EU-accession Baltic states - Lithuania Latvia & Estonia. With the USSR gone there's nothing for them in the Baltics so they came here.

Anonymous said...

In non-humorous stories from the same people the blonde is usually the 'sweet good girl' and the brunette the 'devious bad girl-femme fatale'

Sweet, good, and dumb. You haven't disproven the "dumb blonde" stereotype in the slightest.

And the blonde guys in Hollywood movies are generally evil and dumb.

What is going on here is not "rage" the brunette men who dominate Hollywood still might harbor over some historical event. It is rather straightforward genetic bigotry. What they would have tried to really do in tribal times (when their genes evolved) they must now relegate to their imaginations: kill or suppress the male social rivals who look and act different from them and then mate with their women. You can summarize the plots of a highly improbable proportion of Hollywood movies as follows:

(1) Rivalry between tall, dark, and cosmopolitan guy and goyish bad guy (dumb and blond, redneck, or similar) over blonde goy woman (usually sweet, sexy, and dumb, and usually from a flyover state).

(2) Tall, dark, and cosmopolitan kills the bad goy, or tosses him out of polite society.

(3) Tall, dark & cosmopolitan lives with sexy goy woman happily every after, or at least gets plenty of chances to do her.

Hollywood elites unlike the vast majority of us are in a position to work these fantasies into their art and the art of their often naive employees competing to impress their bosses.

Eastern European gentiles were the main ethnic rivals of Ashkenazim before they emigrated to the U.S., so the same instinctive bigotry explains Polish jokes, Borat, and similar vicious and disgusting media-approved bigotry against Eastern Europeans. It has nothing to do with alleged "pogroms".

AFAIK Jim Bowery discovered this phenomenon, and he has more very interesting things to say about instinctive (genetically based) fantasies, modern media promulgated ethnic stereotypes, and why it's politically correct to slander Eastern Europes (or in many contexts gentile whites generally) but not other ethnic groups that Ashkenazim do not see as their social or economic rivals.