Some almost random thoughts..

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Why we laugh together and can't get enough of TV.

Ever wondered why laughing is such a social activity? And why we watch so much TV, even when it doesn't seem to give us much in return?

Maybe it is our social brain that makes us do it. A
brain that never expected to be fooled by electronics..

Imagine you are a solitary animal and you are turning into a social one. Now being nice to your kin is easy because that benefits your own genes. As long as the cost to your fitness is less than their benefit times the degree of relatedness, no problem.

But when it comes to living in a large, complex and less related group you need a different set of rules. There are a lot of prisoner dilemmas that need to be solved. You don't get to benefit from group living unless you are geared towards the optimal solution where you take the effect of your actions on your neighbours into consideration. Evolution solved that with social emotions, like shame, pride, envy, respect, indignity, embarrassment etc. They all work to get you to choose the seemingly suboptimal choice, but the one that in the long run works best for you in the group.

In every society, there are the unwritten rules that determine when you should be ashamed of yourself, or when you can take pride in your actions. The problem with these systems of social rules is that they can vary a lot in their absolute form. In some societies it is acceptable to kill the wife that betrays you and hack off the hands of a thief. In others, a murderer can get a slap on the wrist and thieves are just told off. There can be large differences over time and from group to group in the applicability of the social emotions we are all equipped with.

The thing to understand is that you can function just fine under all systems, as long as you are in tune with the going morals. So you can't be taken advantage of and you won't make costly social blunders. It is this staying in tune that takes constant calibration of your social sensitivities with those of the others. The brain's best mechanism to achieve this is to have you listen to stories about all kinds of social situations, while at the same time carefully taking into account your environment's reactions. Are people laughing out loud? Are they sounding outrage? Empathy? The kind and the strength of the reactions around you is the valuable information your brain needs to get you to behave in tune with your group.

So evolution has equipped you with a liking for these social narratives. Not because those stories are so special, but because your brain needs you to calibrate your moral sensitivities to those of your group. The others laugh? You feel like laughing. The others are upset? You start to feel upset. Slowly but surely the brain nudges your position closer to the others and the group's outbursts of approval and disapproval synchronize.

Stories with the kind of humor that manages to walk the fine line between funny and rude are valuable. The group's reactions let you know exactly where the social boundaries are. But you can see why watching sitcoms on TV without the included laughter doesn't work. Not only can't you laugh with the others, you actually get the message that what you are seeing shouldn't be deemed funny because nobody else is laughing.

Laughing, cheering and booing are all useful social signals, they wouldn't be so loud if they weren't. You don't send out deliberate signals if they don't benefit you in some way. They are used to get you in tune with the group, and the group in tune with you. Because when it comes to social morals, it doesn't pay to be different.

In the modern world we automated the stone-age storyteller in the middle of the group, into the TV-set we mostly watch on our own. People can spend hours watching almost the same storyline in soaps, comedy and drama again and again. It's their social brain that makes them do it. But without the ever changing vocal reactions of our group, it may have become a waste of time. The brain never anticipated being fooled by electronics.


Adriaan said...

For a good overview of research on laughter:

It stresses the social function of laughter. It misses the broader mechanism of using storytelling to calibrate an individual's moral sensitivities to the those of the larger group. We need it because there can be many possible moral rules.

It isn't just laughter that matters, we take any noticeable sign of approval or disapproval into account. The lack of the expected emotion can be just as effective.

Keith Oatley said...

I think you are absolutely right about this: laughter and jokes are just as you say, ways of aligning our own values with those of the social group. You might be interested in the work of Robin Dunbar, see for instance, his 2004 book The human story: A new history of mankind's evolution. London: Faber. Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist who has done research on exactly this kind of issue.



Laughter and storytelling:

All humans are equipped with the ability to experience the same social emotions like shame, pride, envy and respect. But the applicability of these emotions can vary strongly from group to group and over time. So the brain needs us to constantly calibrate our social morals with those of our group. The most efficient way to do this is through storytelling. We evolved a love of listening to stories, because in a stone age setting that would expose us to the reactions of our group to the story. We slowly but surely mirror the reactions we hear around us, like laughter and outrage, so that we end up in sync with the social morals of the group. This shows why watching comedy without the studio laughter is difficult. Not only can't you laugh with others, you actually get the message that what you hear shouldn't be deemed funny, because nobody else is laughing.

Laughter and storytelling combine to make us compatible in behaviour, because when it comes to social morals, it did not pay to be different. In the modern world, we have automated the storyteller in the middle of the group, into the TV-set we mostly watch on our own. But without the vocal reactions of our group, it might have become a waste of time.

Hunting and gathering.

As humans we solved our basic food problem. Getting the calories we need to survive is easy. But like animals in the zoo that get fed, we have kept much of the display behaviour related to our feeding methods throughout our evolution.

The gatherer into gossip and fashion.
The success in gathering partly depends on the quality of your information network. You need to hear in time where the latest fruiting tree is. There may be more than enough for the person that finds it, but not enough for everyone. A gatherer that finds food will share the information with someone that seems likely to be able to return the favour another time. So gatherers have evolved a need to signal having a quality social network and being 'up to date'.

Gossip and keeping up with fashion trends are modern display behaviours linked to the innate need to be up to date and to be seen to be up to date. With gossip, a gatherer has a special interest in being the first in relaying otherwise useful bits of information.

The hunter into sports and career.
Stone-age hunting is a team effort needing diverse skills. You are better off hunting with a few others. But you do not want to bring anyone along who can't pull his own weight. You do not want to share the meat and the glory with a slacker. So the hunter has evolved a constant need to show they will make a valuable team member to other hunters. That is what gets you on the best hunting party and that gets you the best food and possibly 'extra' mating opportunities.

Every opportunity you have to compete with others to show off your skills can help you get picked by the best. Modern sports and even career are behaviours linked to the need to show you are a valuable team member and you deserve your spot in the highest league. The displays needed to establish and keep your deserved rank would settle down in a small group. In our modern large group the hunter has become stuck in this display behaviour because there is always a higher league to get into. And people's social circle has become more homogeneous through the sorting that happens in school, housing and work arrangements. So there is always someone close ahead or behind. This may be an important driver behind the 'never enough' economy.

Blog Archive