Friday, June 20, 2008

Psychology: Jokes help us survive even when we daren't laugh aloud

Anyone who doubts that the human spirit is irrepressible should have a look at the jokes told under Communist rule. But, of course, many of them are ancient, as Noel Malcolm notes, reviewing Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes by Ben Lewis in the Daily Telegraph (15/06/2008). He asks,

... what exactly does it mean to 'generate' a joke? The precise origins of most jokes are unknown; in some cases, however, it is clear that the joke was recorded long before the birth of the Soviet Union.

Lewis gives a striking example of this: the story of the sheep who try to leave the country, explaining to the border guards that they want to get out because the secret police have received orders to arrest all elephants. 'But you're not elephants.' 'Try telling that to the secret police.' This joke, he discovers, can be found in a 12th-century Persian poem.

(I could add a few more examples. One of his gags, 'Is it true that half the Central Committee are idiots?' 'No, that's rubbish. Half the Central Committee are not idiots,' is a version of a story told about Disraeli: 'Mr Speaker, I withdraw that statement. Half the Cabinet are not asses.'

As for the wince-making joke about the Russian announcement that a man would land on the Sun - 'But Mr Brezhnev, the cosmonauts will burn up!' 'Do you take me for a fool? They'll be landing at night!' - I distinctly recall being told that one in a school playground, 40 years ago, about the Irish space programme.)
Some have gone to the trouble of trying to explain an evolutionary origin for humour. For example, David Sloan Wilson argues,

Our ancestors were laughing long before they were talking," says David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biological sciences and director of the Evolutionary Studies Program at Binghamton University in New York state. In his latest book, Evolution for Everyone, Wilson traces the evolutionary origin of humor over the past 7 million years, noting that apes engage in "tickling and chasing games accompanied by a facial expression and panting sounds very similar to human laughter."

"The original (and continuing) function of laughter is to create and coordinate a safety and playfulness that is essential for the development of human and social capital," Wilson writes in an e-mail. Laughter is contagious, he says, which enables members of a group to feel the same way at the same time. By fostering a feeling of mutual camaraderie, humor helps develop a sense of teamwork.

- from "Mind Matters: Laughter in the Lab" by Irene S. Levine (November 9, 2007)

But that, of course, has nothing to do with the sort of humour that helps people to survive a totalitarian regime. The latter is an acute awareness of the difference between what is and what ought to be, and the ability to express it through covert jokes. Whatever its origin, it does not predate a mind capable of making such an assessment.

And that's only a start. You can know what is wrong in great detail, and still not be funny, alas.

(Note: Mario and I send up David Sloan Wilson's theory of the origin of religion in The Spiritual Brain.)

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Psychology: If people were robots, safety devices would abolish most accidents, but ...

In "Taking more risks because you feel safe", Shankar Vedantam (Washington Post, June 9, 2008) warns against the assumption that social problems can be solved as if people were robots:
Trying to fix problems that affect vast numbers of people has an intuitive appeal that politicians and policymakers find irresistible, but several warehouses of research studies show that intuition is often a poor guide to fixing systemic problems. While it seems like common sense to pump money into an economy that is pulling the bedcovers over its head, the problem with most social interventions is that they target not robots and machines but human beings -- who regularly respond to interventions in contrarian, paradoxical and unpredictable ways.
Yes, that's precisely the challenge. When policy makers prescribe solutions to human problems, they are usually dealing with people who are as smart and as motivated as themselves, and sometimes idiosyncratic as well.

It is very different from managing a chicken barn, where the chickens do pretty predictable things.

The outcome, of course, is that programs never quite work the way they are supposed to - they undergo constant editing and revision at the user end.

Vedantam tells us that policy analyst Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institute found the same thing as I did, when I wrote automotive stories for the Toronto Star years ago. Anti-lock brakes did not reduce collisions as much as hoped because some people who had them took more chances on icy roads.

Overall, despite this glitch, safety devices and modern emergency medicine have greatly reduced the proportionate death toll from, say, the 1960s - most often by protecting us despite our foolish or dangerous decisions.

His article describes a really interesting British study of motorist reactions to a "male" and "female" cyclist (actually the same researcher, sometimes in drag).