Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Scott Weems

Are Computers Funny?

Pretty funny for a computer.

Pretty funny for a computer.

My friends sometimes say that they can’t tell if I’m joking or not. I wonder if they’re more like computers than we might like to think.

As you may know, computers can actually create jokes. They have a much more difficult time identifying jokes. Sort of like some of my friends.

Constructing a joke often means following a pattern and, as we know, computers are pretty good at following patterns. As Margaret Boden points out, , “Humor is essentially a matter of combinatorial creativity.” Scott Weems seconds the notion, “When we create a joke we’re not inventing new thoughts or scripts, we’re connecting ideas in new ways.”

We’ve seen this before with innovation and creativity. Some of our most successful innovations are mashups of two or more relatively prosaic ideas. Rather than thinking outside the box, we pull old ideas from multiple boxes and combine them in new ways. The wheel is not a new idea. Nor is luggage. Only recently did we think to combine the two to create wheeled luggage.

Can a computer combine ideas in a humorous way? Well, sure. This morning I created about a dozen new jokes using the Joking Computer on the University of Aberdeen website. Here are the two best ones:

What do you call an American state that has a lip? Mouth Carolina.

What’s the difference between aluminum foil at noon and an amusing garden? One is a sunny foil; the other is funny soil.

They both follow a pattern involving rhymes, word substitutions, puns, and antonyms. I doubt that either one of them made you laugh out loud but they’re kind of cute.

Then I went to the Humorous Agent for Humorous Acronyms – HAHAcronym – website. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be active any more. I found two things humorous about this project. First, it could generate acronym definitions like:

MIT – Mythical Institute of Theology

FBI – Fantastic Bureau of Intimidation

Second, the project was funded by the European Union. Can you imagine the U.S. Congress funding something similar? It would almost certainly win a Golden Fleece award.

You may think that these software programs are not clever at all. They simply repeat a pattern. But we humans often follow similar patterns (sometimes called scripts) to create humor. Here’s one that I learned long ago and still use on occasion:

You can make most any sentence mildly funny by appending to it one of two endings:

….., said the Bishop to the chorus girl.   Or

….., said the chorus girl to the Bishop.

So, are we no better than computers? In some forms of joke production, we’re similar. But there are many forms of joke production. But the big difference is joke recognition and appreciation. Weems provides an example of a joke that we would get but a computer wouldn’t:

He is so modest that he pulls down the shades before changing his mind.

Why wouldn’t a computer get it? Because a computer doesn’t have world knowledge. It doesn’t understand that you might pull the shades before changing your clothes but that changing your mind is quit a bit different than changing your clothes.

Will computers ever catch us in humor appreciation and production? I suspect they will and fairly soon as well. I was surprised at how quickly computers solved the problem of driving cars. Or of grading essays almost as well as I can. It shouldn’t be long before computers can actually make us LOL.

Men, Women, Laughter, and Love

Made you laugh.

Made you laugh.

I like to make people laugh. I’m especially funny (I think) when women are around. So, what’s with that?

Frankly, I don’t know why I like to make women laugh. Surprisingly, the neuroscience community seems mildly confused as well. I’ve been reading up on humor as a window into how our brains work. One aspect is that men and women view and use humor differently. But not, perhaps, in the ways you expect.

Here’s what I’ve discovered so far. (Unless noted otherwise, these little gems come from Scott Weems’ book, Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why).

Quantity – women laugh more than men. Weems estimates that women laugh roughly 125 percent more than men.

Aging – women tend to laugh less as they get older. Men not so much. Does it ever even out? We need another study to find out.

Time of day – both men and women laugh more in the afternoon and evening than they do in the morning. This could be related to Immoral Afternoons.

Humor appreciation (1) – men enjoy put-down humor more than women. But this assertion is disputed. Women don’t like put-down jokes about women. When you take these out the mix, men and women are roughly the same.

Humor appreciation (2) – men like dirty jokes more than women. Again, this is disputed. Many dirty jokes make fun of women. When you factor these out, the differences evaporate.

Shared values – people tend to bond (romantically and otherwise) with other people who have similar values. How do you know if someone shares your values? Humor may be the fastest way. Men and women both use humor as a way to gauge values and degree of fit.

Humor and mateability – men and women both value humor in a mate in America, at least. American women rated intelligence as the most desirable trait in a mate; humor finished a close second. (The two are highly related). For American men, the top three traits were intelligence, good looks, and humor. But, as Weems points out, it’s different in Siberia. There, the most desired traits revolve around dependability – including faithfulness and reliability. It’s almost like Maslow’s hierarchy – if your mate is not dependable, it doesn’t much matter if he or she is funny.

Mate selection – if you ask happily married couples why they were attracted to each other, the women often say, “He made me laugh”. The men often say, “She laughed at my jokes”. In other words, men’s humor is essentially the same as a peacock’s display. Apparently, these differences exist even in young children. Perhaps this is why so many class clowns are boys.

Laughers and listeners – in general, “… people tend to laugh more when they are speaking as opposed to listening.” The lone exception? “… when a man is talking to a woman, the woman laughs more than the man.” Perhaps she’s responding to the peacock display.

Humor production – while men and women seem similar in humor appreciation, they differ in humor production. In a study cited by Christie Nicholson, women preferred men “…who could make them laugh twice as often as they returned the favor. Men, on the other hand, offered humor about a third more than they requested it.” It’s all about mate selection. (Isn’t everything?)

Relationship maintenance – it’s not just mate selection, its also mate maintenance. According to Weems, “Nine out of ten couples say that humor is an important part of their relationship. …. laughing together is essential for marital success.”

So, what’s it all mean? Perhaps Christie Nicholson sums it up best, “A genuine laugh is one of the most honest ways to convey: I’m with you.”

Laughter, Love, and Longevity

Strong willed.

Strong willed.

My mother was a strong-willed woman. My older sister is a strong-willed woman. My wife is a strong-willed woman. I have a very good sense of humor.

Are these phenomena related? I think they are. Psychologists classify humor as a Level 4 defense mechanism. Like other Level 4 mechanisms (altruism, gratitude, tolerance, mercy, etc.), humor is “…found among emotionally healthy adults … and [has] been adapted through the years to optimize success in human relationships and society”. More specifically, humor “is an overt expression of ideas and feelings … that give pleasure to others”.

So, if you find yourself surrounded by powerful people, humor is a good way to express your feelings, give pleasure to others, and build successful relationships. It may even help you get your way.

But wait, there’s more. According to the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, laughter may signal that an apparently dangerous situation isn’t really so awful. He writes, “…laughter evolved to inform our kin … : don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm”.  Nervous laughter may be a signal to ourselves that what we’re experiencing is not as terrible as it seems. That would explain audience laughter during Quentin Tarrantino movies (which seem like pumped up, colorized, vaguely delusional versions of The Three Stooges).

Laughter may also help us endure traumas, both physical and psychological. How long can you hold your hand in a bucket of ice cold water? Not long. As Scott Weems points out, however, if someone makes you laugh before you submerge your hand, you can keep it there longer. Laughter, in other words, can help us endure. By laughing at our trauma, we show ourselves that it’s really not so bad. We survived, didn’t we?

I wonder if this is why we tell grim jokes about tragic events. When the Challenger exploded in 1986, I remember hearing jokes within just a few days. I was shocked and numbed by the disaster, but I laughed out loud at the jokes. I was surprised at my own fecklessness but, apparently, my laughter was a “soothing balm”.

Weems notes that laughter – like chocolate – releases dopamine in our brains. It makes us feel good. It’s not just a feeling. Laughter can also lower our blood pressure, improve blood flow, and stimulate the immune system. Apparently, it can even help us recover from surgery. Indeed, Weems claims that, “Humor is also a form of exercise, keeping your minds healthy the same way that physical exertion helps our bodies.”

With all its health benefits, you might assume that people with a good sense of humor would live longer. But you’d be wrong. Weems cites two different studies that suggest that humor can make you healthier and happier but not older. In fact, the reverse may be true.

One longitudinal study sought to correlate personality traits, health, and longevity. The personality trait that promoted longevity best was conscientiousness, which “reflects how prudent and thoughtful a person is when dealing with others….”

Unlike conscientiousness, humor was negatively correlated with longevity. Why? No one really knows, but it may be that humorous people don’t take very good care of themselves. They’d rather be laughing than dieting or exercising. In fact, as we’ve seen before, people who are laughing just want to go on laughing. That’s not a bad thing unless you’re trying to motivate them to action.

Humor can help lubricate social mechanisms. It can help soothe and smooth. It can help us defend our interests and build successful relationships. It may not help us live longer but it helps us live better. If applied conscientiously, it can even help you live with talented, intelligent, strong-willed women.

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