Communication as Art and Science

I alluded to this on Twitter, and meant to leave that be, but the other thing I was going to blog today didn’t come together, and I probably shouldn’t leave a cryptic tweet as my only comment. So…

One of the links getting passed around a lot in my social-media circles is this Tumblr post from Ben Lillie on The Humanities of Science Communication, which argues that discussions of the science of communication often seem to ignore the expertise of people who communicate for a living– playwrights, actors, journalists, etc. This is a good point, but the post as a whole bugged me a bit, because of the trigger point. That is, Ben was reacting in part to a paper about jokes that looked at the effect of “pre-exposing” key words from the punch line on how funny people found the joke, and find that “pre-exposing a punchline, which in common knowledge should spoil a joke, can actually increase funniness under certain conditions.” Ben writes:

This is shocking. Not the conclusion, which is clearly correct. The problem is that the conclusion has been known to comedians for at least the last several thousand years. When I trained in improv comedy the third class was on callbacks, the jargon term for that technique. The entire structure of an improv comedy set is based around variations on the idea that things are funnier if they’re repeated. And yet to the authors it was “common knowledge” that this will spoil a joke. There is a long tradition of people who know, from experience, how this works, and yet the idea of asking them is not evident anywhere in the paper. This is the problem — the sense that the only valid answers come from inside science and the research world.

This bugs me, because I suspect it’s unfair to the paper in a couple of ways– I say “suspect” because I don’t have access to the full paper, so I can’t check in detail. First, I would say that the idea that pre-exposure might ruin a joke isn’t complete nonsense– and, in fact, in the abstract, they note that “pre-exposing punchline words directly before a joke led to decreased funniness ratings.” And giving away the punchline too soon– here meaning “in the process of setting it up”(*)– is one of the canonical ways to screw up telling a joke. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to call that “common knowledge,” or for that joke-ruining kind of pre-exposure to co-exist with the notion of callbacks to earlier jokes.

More importantly, though, I strongly suspect that this misconstrues the purpose of the paper. That is, if this were research aimed at helping people to tell funnier jokes, I agree it would be pretty dumb. But looking at the abstract, and the fact that it’s in a journal called “Cognition and Emotion”– again, the paper is paywalled away from me– I don’t think this is really about jokes at all. They’re not really interested in humor, they’re interested in the idea of humor, specifically in using it as a probe of the way the brain operates. They have a possible model, which arguably isn’t a very good one, and they’re making a direct test of that, not because they want to knock ‘em dead at the next open-mic night at the University of Cologne Psychology Department, but because they think this might provide some insight into the deeper workings of the brain.

So, yes, taking this as a definitive treatment of humor would be foolish. But I don’t think that’s what they’re trying to do at all, and ridiculing it for not being good at something it’s not trying to do is kind of unfair.

Again, Ben’s larger point about it being useful to consult people who communicate things for a living is a good one, particularly if your goal is to offer practical advice on communication. You could also argue that they ought to consult comedians before doing research aimed at using comedy as a cognitive probe, though I’m less certain that’s strictly necessary– again, they’re not really interested in funny per se, but funny as a way to test a particular model of how the brain works. But if you want to communicate stuff, not just test models of mental processing of information, you should absolutely talk to the professionals. That’s why things like the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science exist, and are a Good Thing.

At the same time, though, I would caution against taking anything either scientists or professional communicators say as definitive. After all, the history of comedy includes a long string of people who became famous by doing things that shouldn’t work (see Kaufman, Andy). Yesterday’s Big Event of the day, President Obama going on Zach Galifinakis’s fake talk show to promote health care signups, provides a nice example. Most of the stories about this– in the New York Times, say– feel compelled to explain what the joke is, and the piece in Time (via Kevin Drum) even states outright that “There’s a cringe-humor generation gap; if you’re over a certain age, or simply haven’t watched much of a certain kind of contemporary comedy, you’ll probably watch it thinking that the segment is bombing and Obama is getting legitimately angry.”

That’s necessary mostly because if you go back in time, this wouldn’t’ve been considered funny, at all, and if you’d suggested the concept, people would’ve told you that it would never work. And it might not have, because tastes in humor evolve. Something that doesn’t seem like it ought to be funny turns out to work really well in the right hands. And once people get the idea that something that wasn’t previously funny can be funny, well, you end up with the President of the United States appearing on a deadpan fake talk show trading insults with the “host.”

Is the next comedy breakthrough likely to come from cognitive scientists trying to use humor to test models of information processing? Unlikely, but again, that’s not what they’re trying to do. At the same time, you shouldn’t take the conventional wisdom of professionals as the final word on the subject, either.

——

* – This might benefit from a concrete example, so consider the following dreadful pun:

Q: What do you wear to hide in the desert?

A: Camel-flage.

That’s not very funny, but I think most people would agree that it’s even less funny if you spoil the punchline:

Q: What do you use as camouflage in the desert?

A: Camel-flage.

I think it would be fair to say that this kind of thing is a common-knowledge way to ruin a joke. And that’s consistent with their testing, at least going from the abstract.

Comments

  1. #1 R
    March 12, 2014

    Just scanned the article, and you’re very right. The article was about teasing apart the mental processes that LEAD to something being funny.

    The beginning of the Discussion, for example:
    “The present experiments tested a processing fluency
    of the experience of funniness in arguing that
    the ease with which a punchline is processed drives
    funniness. Combining prior theoretical considerations
    on humour with recent psychological theorising
    on insight it was specifically argued that increased fluency in
    resolving the initially surprising incongruity of a
    punchline and thus gaining insight into the joke’s
    meaning enhances funniness, also because fluency
    feels positive itself and induces feelings of coherence and insight.”

    Also, I’m amused at Lillie’s assertion that no one thought to ask the people who know how this works. This strikes me as a fundamental disconnect between what science is and what he THINKS science is. As one of the commenters points out, science is not about just getting an answer drawn from anecdote. It’s about coming to an unbiased conclusion, based on gathered data. Lillie is both misinterpreting the question being asked AND misunderstanding science’s process and motive, all in one fell swoop.

    I agree that drawing more people from different walks of life into science can be beneficial. Real comedians might have some insights that would craft more insightful experiments. But gathering experiences is not science. It’s storytelling.

  2. #2 Anonymous Coward
    March 12, 2014

    I found the second version of the camel-flage joke funnier. Is there something wrong with me?

  3. #3 jane
    March 12, 2014

    R – There is such a thing as observational science, thankfully; there was a phase when all observations of free-living animal behavior were dismissed as un-Scientific because the animals were not under the control of an experimenter. Even when gathering experiences cannot be called science, it is still one of the most important ways in which humans learn, and dismissing the experiences of anyone who has not been “drawn into [formal] science” as mere “storytelling” not worthy of consideration is exactly the sort of hubris that provokes perhaps exaggerated critical responses like the one blogged about here.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    March 13, 2014

    AC @2: That depends on whether English is your native language. Most puns are only funny to someone who is fluent in the language of the pun.

    If English is in fact your native language, then the only thing I can come up with is that you weren’t prepared for the play on “camouflage”, and I don’t know why that would be true (whereas if English is a second language for you, I wouldn’t be surprised by your unfamiliarity with that word). The key words in the first version are “wear” and “hide”, and they make the answer to the question inevitable, at least in retrospect, to most native speakers.

  5. #5 R
    March 13, 2014

    jane – I didn’t make any judgment call about the value of stories vs. experimental data. Yes, information can be gained from anecdote, but the result in that anecdote is not controlled. An event told in anecdote (or even a lifetime of anecdotes) is not an experiment. When I said that gathering anecdote was not science, I probably should have said, “the information in anecdotes is not the same as experimental evidence.” Sorry if I wasn’t clear, but please don’t put words in my mouth.

    I agree, anecdote and non-scientific experience are valuable. But it is NOT evidence from a controlled experiment, either, and thus wouldn’t be useful to the journal author in answering their question. My point stands: the journal authors could not get the answer they were looking for by simply talking to comedians about their experiences with humor. That would have told them nothing about the underlying cognitive and emotional triggers involved in experiencing humor. It just would have given them some professional opinions about what worked when telling jokes.

    AC @2 and Eric: I’ll admit, I found the second slightly funnier, too, and I am a native English speaker. To me, the funnier thing was the play on words, and priming me with “camouflage” made the joke flow better for me. I could appreciate the play on words, though it did break some of the “surprise” of the punchline. *shrug* Matter of taste, I guess (or, as the article author might say, different cognitive processing pathways!)

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