Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Just Jokin'

I, for one, found this very funny.

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!”
And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

Yesterday's New York Times had a nice article on humor. It was well worth reading, even with little gems like this

“Primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction,” Professor Panksepp says. “Sophisticated social animals such as mammals need an emotionally positive mechanism to help create social brains and to weave organisms effectively into the social fabric.”

I happened to wonder about the purpose of laughter a couple of weeks back. I was just about to open the door to the stairwell at work here when someone opened it from the other side, and we almost collided. We instinctively laughed, and I wondered at that.

There was nothing funny about what happened- someone could have got hurt- so why did we laugh? My best guess was that it had something to do with signalling that we both meant no harm- I had not been lurking in wait to pounce on that poor guy. From the article

“Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioral fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.”

If I had been lurking in wait to beat that poor man up, I would have found it very hard to laugh convincingly.

And of course, your boss' jokes are always funny.

Which brings us back to the muffin joke. It was inflicted by social psychologists at Florida State University on undergraduate women last year, during interviews for what was ostensibly a study of their spending habits. Some of the women were told the interviewer would be awarding a substantial cash prize to a few of the participants, like a boss deciding which underling deserved a bonus.

The women put in the underling position were a lot more likely to laugh at the muffin joke (and others almost as lame) than were women in the control group. But it wasn’t just because these underlings were trying to manipulate the boss, as was demonstrated in a follow-up experiment.

This time each of the women watched the muffin joke being told on videotape by a person who was ostensibly going to be working with her on a task. There was supposed to be a cash reward afterward to be allocated by a designated boss. In some cases the woman watching was designated the boss; in other cases she was the underling or a co-worker of the person on the videotape.

When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.

Again, it could be that to "get" a joke, you need to be able to empathize with the other person, and we know that being in a position of power diminishes empathy.

HT: Brad DeLong

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