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Dum and Dummer: Why Cognitive Failings Prompt Laughter

Why cognitive shortfalls and slip-ups are a source of laughter and humor.

Key points

  • Much of our laughter and humor centers on examples of faulty thinking, whether due to a lack of information or just poor reasoning abilities.
  • Cognitive skills include perception, categorization, memorization, cost-benefit analyses, predicting likely outcomes, and regulating emotions.
  • Such shortcomings can prove fatal, but many are relatable examples of the shortfalls, missteps, and blunders that so often inspire laughter.

The Mutual Vulnerability Theory is my small contribution to the science of laughter. It posits that laughter is a nonverbal expression that reminds others we all share certain shortcomings. I’ve discussed, in prior posts, two of the four most prominent varieties of vulnerability: physical and emotional. Here, I provide a section from Chapter 3 of my book, Why We Laugh: A New Understanding, where, having briefly examined these first two categories, I introduced the third.

Cognitive Vulnerability

As more complex and active forms of life evolved, they developed specialized cells capable of transmitting internal messages via chemical ions rather than large, complex, protein-based hormones. These became the cells of the nervous system. Using stationary cells as conduits for simple electrochemical transmitters, the nervous system acts like a point-to-point telegraph system rather than something that showers only nearby cells (or the bloodstream) with hormonal neurotransmitters. Its various parts function quickly enough to act both as receivers of signals from the environment (sensory cells) and as conduits for messages between various parts of the body (nerve cells). Proper functioning of such a system would permit rapid sorting of relevant from irrelevant environmental signals, selecting of appropriate responses from either genetically determined or learned behavioral “programs,” coordinating various drives or emotions, and modulating potential responses in order to best handle the situation at hand.

Even in the most complex organisms, a large part of the nervous system is dedicated to relatively mundane tasks. Neural pathways involved in controlling organs such as the heart, lungs, and liver make up the autonomic nervous system. Those that control skin and skeletal muscles make up the somatic nervous system, over which we may have much greater conscious control. Together they comprise the peripheral nervous system that closely ties into our emotional control centers in the brain, both in preparing us for physical challenges we encounter during exceptional activity and, later, in returning the system to a state of relative equilibrium (Lutz, 1999).

For the most part, we can include activities of the spinal cord and brain stem with the physical vulnerabilities. Of concern here is the portion of the central nervous system having to do with so-called “higher” thought or cognition, the cerebral cortex.

Our success as individuals, and thus as a species, is inexorably tied to the way in which we perceive the world around us; sift out pertinent environmental signals; create, store, and retrieve information via our short- and long-term memories; and make appropriate decisions about how to react. All sentient organisms do this to some degree. But true cognitive abilities are anticipatory by design. They serve to predict the outcome of various scenarios when we respond—or fail to respond—in certain ways, allowing us to think several steps ahead of the present situation. They’re problem solvers and compute cost/benefit ratios. They permit abstract thought, categorizations, and associations. And they direct our conscious efforts to manipulate the environment, including (perhaps most important) our social environment, both through the manufacture and use of tools and through the accumulation, use, and distribution of information. As such, our intellect acts to override or redirect our basic drives and emotional tendencies (Alexander, 1986). It moderates fear responses, tempers our desire for immediate gratification, focuses our attention on specific problems, and keeps our moods—anxiety, joy, sadness, and contentment—from becoming so intractable or inflexible as to be detrimental.

Fortunately, our cognitive controls don’t perform with computer-like speed or precision. If they did, we would be less able to adapt to new challenges. We would react in a near-reflexive way without the full benefit of contemplation, learning, imaginative scenario building, and hindsight. Modest variations in the efficiency of reasoning powers are both inevitable and beneficial. Recalling memories, for example, is not perfect or perpetual—experiences fade over time, allowing us to focus more clearly on current problems. Large aberrations in our cognitive abilities, however, can obviously prove fatal, as when we fail to associate a pride of lions with the concept of physical threat. Between these two extremes, we discover a range of intellectual performances that serve to slow us down a bit, take us slightly off course, or keep us from reaching certain intermediate goals in life. These shortcomings could be thought of as cognitive vulnerabilities.

It’s a Long, Long List

What are examples of cognitive vulnerability? The failure to perceive relevant stimuli; the inaccurate identification, categorization, or assessment of important environmental components or threats; the inability to remember something correctly or to remember it for too brief a time—these belong to this category. The conscious selection of an ineffective behavioral response to a given situation; the failure to properly conceptualize a problem and/or its solution; inaccuracy when communicating with others; misjudging one’s own abilities—all these are the likely byproducts of a multidimensional and highly complex information-processing system.

Beyond these small-scale decisions and skills are those larger behavioral patterns we might think of as life strategies. In what direction do we take our lives with respect to acquiring resources? How do we perceive and, if necessary, moderate our successes and failures? How skilled are we at calculating probabilities, recognizing threats, and simplifying the complex? How well do we assess our own strengths and weaknesses, or those of others?

We inevitably make bad decisions, pursue questionable goals, and lack knowledge others think we should have. Our brains are wondrous things, but they’re not without momentary lapses and general weaknesses. These shortcomings, combined with our ability to learn from mistakes, have directly contributed to the unparalleled success of our species. They’re both part of our collective nature, and we have a tendency to remind each other of that fact with laughter.

To see how someone’s understandable confusion can encourage expressions of mutual vulnerability, check out this video: Just for Laughs Twin Pranks.

© John Charles Simon.

References

Alexander, R. D. (1986). Ostracism and Indirect Reciprocity: The Reproductive Significance of Humor. Ethology and Sociobiology 7: 253-270.

Lutz, T. (1999). Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

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