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ok, semester is over and obviously the humour series sort of got away from me. So instead of trying to continue it in detail, I'll offer a summary of the key points

The theory offered in Inside Jokes is this: we are constantly constructing new mental models of our environment (mental and physical) on the fly, based on knowledge and guesses. It is important that these models be as accurate as possible - that tiger hidden in the bushes better be recognised as a tiger or you won't survive long. Amusement is your brain's method of getting you to troubleshoot your models by acting as a reward mechanism, kicking in when you discover that a part of your model that you'd accepted as accurate turns out to be wrong. The urge to laugh is the reward/we know we are amused because we want to laugh. Jokes and deliberate humour are a super-stimulus for the amusement system.

To that I would add: the reason amusement is signalled by laughter, as opposed to some other mechanism, is that laughter was co-opted from an earlier fear response. Huron (from Sweet Anticipation, which I'm reading now) suggests that we can trace laughter from the play-panting common to primates and some mammals, which in turn used to just be hyperventilation in preparation for a flight response. The panting/hyperventilation came to be a signal of low status in response to being confronted with a higher status peer (you can tell I'm afraid of you because I'm panting), which then got co-opted for play, and in humans became more obvious (vocalisation) and efficient (only using the out-breath) in the form of laughter.

The previous paragraph is an ev-psych just so story, but I like the way it ties in all the status/signalling aspects of laughter. It suggests that laughter has two distinct purposes: displaying status, and troubleshooting mental models. It explains why we feel as if higher-status people come across as funnier - we laugh as a signal of low status and then misinterpret the laughter as a sign of being amused, particularly since the environment suggests that being amused is a plausible response (unlike the guy who suffered from involuntary laughter, who did not feel amused). This also explains why it's so hard to account for all kinds of humour/laughter using a single theory.

Not adequately covered by either half of this model: laughing at other people, particularly people who are lower status than you. Although it might be as simple as 'my model which previously suggested that this person was intelligent/competent was incorrect'. In-jokes, which I'm going to explain as a form of self-anchoring - I found this funny in this context in the past and so now I'm the kind of person who finds this joke funny when said in a similar enough context.

Next: Sweet Anticipation, by David Huron. It's a book about the cognitive science of music and also of expectation. Instead of reading the whole thing and then attempting to summarise it I might try something more like live-blogging, where I stop every now and then to summarise the interesting points so far.
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(preamble: anyone who's a regular reader of LW can safely skip this post, it's nothing that hasn't been covered there a few hundred times)

There's a folk psychology idea that emotions and wisdom are opposed traits. There are lots of people who make really short-sighted impulsive decisions based on their emotions who would obviously benefit from stopping once in a while to think through the consequences of their actions. And on the other end of the spectrum is the Spock stereotype that most nerds are haunted by at some point or another**. Well, good news everyone! Turns out there's no dichotomy between the two! In fact, you need both!

Let's pick on Spock for a moment, and take the kind of scenario he might be faced with in a typical episode of Star Trek: there's a couple of crew members down on a planet who've been captured by the local bad guys. Those crew members will die if they're not rescued. Only problem is that they're being held in the middle of the bad guys' Fortress of Doom, and according to Spock's calculations a typical rescue attempt only has a 5% chance of succeeding and has a 50% chance of resulting in the deaths of the entire rescue team. What's the rational thing to do here? *

What if one of the crew members being held is Scotty, who they need to keep the ship running? What if it's Captain Kirk, who they need to seduce alien queens**? Is it more rational to mount a rescue then? Why? It's not like any of the numbers of the original estimate have changed.  Dig into Spock's 'rationality' and it pretty clearly comes down to number of lives saved. A rescue attempt with a 5% chance of success and a 50% chance of more deaths is a lousy gamble. The perceived odds shift (even though the bare numbers haven't changed) when taking into account more important crew members because those people are essential to preventing more deaths further down the line. But why is it rational to save lives?

The real answer here is that Spock isn't actually ignoring his emotions at all. The only reason anyone would be interested in saving lives is if they value life over death. To unpack that further, we like it when people are alive and we don't like it when people die. Or maybe you do like it when people die but don't like it when everyone shuns you because you're a creepy death-loving weirdo, so you pretend to dislike death. The point here is that ultimately you act according to your values, and your values consist of emotional valencies towards certain concepts, eg. +10 life, -10 death, -20 being alone forever, +5 having a prestigious career, and so on. Without values, you have no mechanism to decide that thing A is a better decision than things B-Z. Some of these values are more common and deep-rooted than others, mostly because we only really have a small number of things we like and dislike, and so a value like "having a prestigious career" (which can change when you re-evaluate your life) is just a fancier version of "being liked by others" (which is much harder to shift and can be satisfied in lots of different ways).

Transient emotions can also affect our values. Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational, talked about some experiments on how arousal affects decision making. A bunch of young men were asked questions like "would you have sex without using protection?" and "would you enjoy being spanked?" while in a normal baseline state. Unsurprisingly, they all said they would always use protection, wouldn't engage in taboo or kink, would always get consent, and so forth. Then they were given a stack of porn and given similar questions while they were aroused, and lo and behold, suddenly things like consent and protection were less important. Not because they were originally lying***, but because arousal causes a temporary rearrangement of your values to encourage you to procreate.

This is getting longish, and I have a roleplaying game to go to, so I'll stop here. Next post will be about curiosity, humour, and the evolutionary importance of having good mental models.

* I should probably mention that I've watched very little of the original series, and it's been a long time since I wached any of The Next Generation, so really I'm just making stuff up here.

** ok fine, and also to get into punch-ups. And I suppose to command the ship occasionally

*** even if their original answers were just signalling, I would argue that that's still a strong indication of their values: namely that their actual values around sex were getting outranked by their values around appearing virtuous, and then arousal changes that ranking****

**** One of my current classes is all about analysing phonology using a ranking system called OT. I feel a bit like I have rankings on the brain as a result
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Benign violation (BV) theory
There isn't actually that much to say here that doesn't properly fit into either IR theory or status/superiority theory, but here goes.
The central premise of benign violation theory is that humour exists in the violation of social norms as long as there's no real harm in it. The main point in favour of it is that it describes accurately why things like slapstick and verbal sparring can be funny but attempted murder and arguments aren't, even though they mostly involve the same actions. It also captures why so much humour revolves around sex, excrement, and death, all of which are things you don't talk about in polite company.
Minsky (1981) proposed a sort of Freudian account of humour. Namely that your brain has a bunch of cognitive censors designed to taboo certain kinds of words/thoughts such as sex or excrement related, a la Freud, but also censors for faulty reasoning. And then cheating these censors is 'naughty' and this is what you find funny, successfully carrying out taboo acts or thoughts. This sort of provides an explanation for wordplay humour, since the joke usually lies in an ambiguity between a normal serious reading and the incorrect nonsensical one.
Another point in favour of BV theory is the evolutionary psychology explanation of laughter. Some types of primates have a 'false alarm' signal to go along with the 'snake', 'jaguar' and other assorted predator signals. And on top of that, apparently when chimps play they make a special 'play face' and engage in a kind of panting, which both help to signal that they're playing and the situation isn't serious. Hurley, Dennett, and Adams' explanation of laughter is as a sort of combination of these things: a way to signal that there's no real danger and I'm just playing with you. And so since humour is accompanied by the 'not serious' signal, the logic is that humour can pretty much be characterised as potentially-harmful things done in a non-harmful manner and that's why we all laugh at it.
A final point in favour of BV theory is that it accurately captures the intuition that it's difficult to be in a negative emotional state and find something funny at the same time. But if that negative state isn't due to the potential humour, BV theory says nothing about why I should find something less funny then than when I start off in a neutral or positive emotional state.
What BV theory can't capture
1. Humour isn't always harmless. See: pejorative and bullying humour, mean humour, satire, humour based on inferiority of others (eg. Irish jokes)
2. All the subtleties of humourcraft: if humour is just being non-serious or cheating an internal censor, it should be much easier to craft hilarious jokes than it is. All I would need to do is go out to a public space and say 'poo' a lot, or do something obviously nonsensical to trip the 'faulty reasoning' censor. Or for that matter just lie in bed and think of nonsensical or scatological scenarios. Jokes shouldn't really get more or less funny depending on whether you've been exposed to them before, since a norm violation isn't going to be less of one over time.
Overall, benign-violation theory makes a decent attempt to provide an explanation of humour but misses the mark on many many levels.
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Incongruity resolution (IR) theory
The central idea of incongruity resolution theory is that when we have an expectation that is suddenly resolved, we find it funny. IR theory comes in many different flavours: Kant claimed humour is when we have 'strained expectations that come to nothing", other modern researchers have claimed that it's when we develop two competing frames/expectations from a setup, which is then resolved in favour of one by the punchline, or that we have one frame for the setup and another for the punchline and the humour comes from resolving the two, or that it's when our perceptions and our abstract representations clash, or any number of other variations that involve unexpectedness. And not just any old unexpectedness - pretty much everything that happens to us isn't anything we actively expect. The kind of unexpectedness IR theory calls for are things that we expected *not* to happen as opposed to things that we merely weren't expecting. I didn't expect to see the particular guy at the library who checked my books out for me today, but if he'd been dressed up as Death I probably would have found it amusing.
What incongruity resolution theory gets right:
It accounts for why watching people fall down is widely considered hilarious. It explains most wordplay (where the incongruity comes from ambiguity in meaning). It somewhat explains parodies and obscure humour, where the requirement of being able to draw on your previous knowledge is likely to bring a set of expectations with it to be shattered. It explains unhelpful humour, since we have expectations of people saying things to us that are relevant and truthful (see Grice's maxims for more detail), and to a certain extent mean humour (by the same maxims I expect people not to be unnecessarily mean).
What incongruity resolution theory gets wrong:
There are lots of examples of incongruousness that aren't funny. Some examples: a patient with baffling symptoms, lies, mysteries and puzzles, snow out of season, an instrument out of tune at a concert.
There are plenty of jokes that remain funny even when you already know the punchline, including ingroup humour and really good comedy movies and shows like Monty Python or the earlier seasons of the Simpsons. In these cases, there aren't any expectations being proven false or resolved in an unexpected way, since I already know what's going to happen
IR theory also does a bad job of explaining the social aspects of humour - why other people's laughter makes things funnier, although we could stretch the theory to cover it by guessing that other people laughing makes you more likely to reach the same interpretation as them and therefore also find it funny. Finally, there's still a lot of vagueness in the theory: what is incongruity exactly? Most of the proposed definitions contradict each other. IR theory is more of a description than an explanation.
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It occurs to me that I may have misrepresented part of the status/signalling/superiority theory of humour, in that I focussed on why you would tell jokes but only very briefly mentioned why it is that we might find things funny even when they have no obvious author. So just to make things clear: another way to state the status/superiority theory of humour is that people find it funny when they recognise their superiority over someone else, and this can include your past self. But all the other points still hold: not all humour can be explained in terms of status (eg. nonsequitur, some forms of wordplay), and it doesn't do a good job of explaining why we find the things funny that we do
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All the theories of humour I've seen can be described as falling into one of  4 categories:

1. Status/signalling
2. Incongruity/unexpectedness
3. Norm violation (has overlap with both the previous categories but has been advanced in enough different forms to deserve its own category)
4. Humour/laughter is a defense mechanism against negative emotions

I'll cover each one in a separate post. Since it's Thanksgiving break my aim for this week is to get a post out every day or two.

Status/signalling theories

According to these theories, the main purpose of humour is to signal how clever you are (so that more people want to mate with you), and in the process raise your status relative to everyone else (so that more people want to mate with you). So if you make a joke and people laugh, you've scored points against the people laughing (since they've accepted this particular bid for dominance) and against whoever was the butt of the joke. If a person or group is the butt of the joke you've also increased ingroup-outgroup bias, by explicitly pointing out one of the differences between us and them and implying that we would never be as dumb as them.

What this theory is good at:
It does an excellent job of explaining why we laugh more at jokes told by people with high status than low and why other people's laughter makes things funnier. It explains why a large portion of humour consists of clever insights and wordplay. It explains why people enjoy slapstick and mean humour (other people getting their status lowered), and it explains why obscure jokes and parodies are funnier to the people who get them (more ingroup effects, plus the general high status of knowing more about that field/derivative work). Oh and it also explains sarcastic/unhelpful humour, since not getting the joke means you don't have the same shared knowledge as the person telling it.

What this theory isn't good at:
It doesn't explain toilet humour, which is anything but clever, or why some jokes are funnier due to their unexpectedness while others are funny regardless of their expectedness value or get even funnier through anticipation. The 'mean humour' part of the explanation falls apart when you take into account people like my friend Anton, who's one of the least competitive/status-driven people I know and yet finds mean sitcoms hilarious, or my friend McKenzie, who describes herself as very status-driven but hates them. It also doesn't explain why only particular types of cleverness are eligible for humour - I've been taught by several quite brilliant teachers, and yet I somehow managed not to fall out of my seat laughing whenever they explained a new concept.

Trying to deal with the problems
Some of these objections can be dealt with given a suitable amount of wiggle room.

The variance in the :"mean humour'' category makes more sense if you introduce a term for empathy, where the default would be that mean humour is funny but to find it less funny the more empathetic you are. Then you could try running an experiment involving varying amounts of disassociation between the person being hurt and the person who's meant to find it funny. But regardless of the results, I think this still doesn't quite account for all the nuances of humour in "people getting hurt". For example, a guy getting hit in the balls is generally considered to be hilarious, even though this is one of the situations you would expect guys to have the most empathy. Other situations with comparable amounts of damage/pain, like getting punched in the face or a woman getting hit in the breasts aren't nearly as funny. Similarly, a person finding out their spouse has been sneaking out to pursue their dream of being a singer isn't funny, but a person finding our their spouse has been sneaking out to pursue their dream of being a clown is funnier, even though most people don't want to be either.

Toilet humour generally requires an appropriate context (ie. cleverness. Just blurting out "penis" isn't funny after the age of 15), and could be considered to have a status-related component in that only high-status individuals would risk talking about taboo topics. This doesn't feel like it explains the facts that well though - in some groups, toilet humour will get you a dirty look no matter how high status or clever you are. And the people who find toilet humour the funniest (children, some of the people at my old workplace) tend to be the ones with the lower status.

Types of cleverness: this isn't explainable at all without appeal to outside variables like unexpectedness, as far as I can tell.

Status explanations can't account for why we find the things funny that we do. But like pretty much everything else, humour has been co-opted into the status game and is treated as a marker for high status, which then feeds back into our sense of humour and influences how funny potentially-funny-things are to us.

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I feel like procrastinating, so this is as good a time as any to start writing some of my half-assed research up. My plan of attack: Part 1 will cover the types of phenomena a good theory of humour would need to cover. Parts 2-5 (+/- 2) will cover current theories of humour and examine how well they account for different categories of humour. Subsequent parts will try to pull in other cogsci research and personal observations to make sense of it all. And I don't have a grand conclusion that I'm leading up to :)

Categories of humour that any model would need to account for:

* Ingroup humour.: jokes that aren't actually funny (assuming they ever were) but which people in your social circle use and which you and your friends use and laugh at anyway. (your mother and that's what she said tend to fall into this category)

* Obscure humour: the relatively well-known phenomenon where the more obscure the knowledge required to understand the joke, the more likely you are to find it hilarious

* Status effects on humour: you laugh more at jokes made by people who you consider to be higher status than you, and less at jokes made by people who are lower status

* Seeing/hearing other people laugh makes things funnier.

* Parodies and other heavily derivative humour are much funnier than you would reasonably expect.

* Jokes where the humour comes due to the unexpectedness of the punchline (absurdist humour falls under this a lot of the time)

* Jokes that are still funny or even funnier when you know the punchline in advance ("the Hammer is my penis"). At the extreme end of this are jokes that start out not-funny or marginally funny and become hilarious through repetition. (can't think of any examples of this at the moment)

* Puns and other wordplay

* Slapstick and other visual humour

* Mean humour (It's always sunny in Philadelphia is good for this. I can't stand it because the characters are all dicks but I know lots of people who love it)

* Toilet humour and other humour that derives from inappropriateness and taboo topics

* Humour that consists of saying things that are obviously false or unhelpful. This includes sarcasm, but there are also lots of instances of this that lack the connotations of sarcasm. (Example: one of my fellow grad students saying that preservatives are healthy and make you live longer, that's why they're called preservatives).

So, what have I missed?


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