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YMIAFT Chapter 3 Part 3

False Positives

“Humor is reason gone mad.”

~ Groucho Marx

The kind of distortion our humour network was not made for can be seen all around us. For example, on an episode of American Idol a few years ago, they featured the people that didn't make it. One auditioning talent, calling himself “Jay Smoove”, performed an over the top love ballad. His signature move was to hold his hand up, and at a key moment in the song, he released rose petals and sparkling silver confetti. It was completely cheesy, and the judges recognized that and laughed. I recognized that and laughed. Everyone from the show's producers to the video editors knew it was cheesy, which was why he was featured in this show of out-takes. Everyone could see that he had clearly missed the point. Except him.

That humour is part of the set of tools we use to establish a shared world view seems, on the surface, to contradict a very common phenomenon, which is when we laugh at someone trying to reach out to us. Not at a joke shared by two people at the expense of a third, because obviously the two laughing benefit from commonality. I don't doubt from the earliest days of humour any two people would be willing to sell out a third if it could establish a bond. The trickier phenomenon to explain is when someone is sincerely trying to relate to us, but failing at it, and being funny as a result. If it were the case that we find incompatible world views too far, shouldn't the socially hapless be simply reviled instead of being unintentional fodder for amusement?

To resolve this apparent contradiction, we need to remember that to our brains, the flow of activity is just that, a flow of activity, with no one flow being more or less meaningful than any other. Among our neurons, this flow is merely electrochemical signals in, and electrochemical signals out. In other words, what our brains take to be patterns of activity that can have relevance and can inspire connections is not necessarily the same thing that we would consciously identify as commonality between people. What we might describe as being the qualities that two people can share to make a meaningful interpersonal relationship comes at the end of a long string of biases built on layers of psychology, sociology, and culture, many steps above the basic operations of humour sensation in the brain.

The people who make us laugh without intending it are trying to be a part of a relationship. And they succeed to a certain degree because they take on all the conventions and symbols that the rest of us use successfully. Elaborate stage presentations involving confetti or rose petals have been used to achieve the intended effect by other famous performers, which was exactly why Jay Smoove tried to emulate them. His mishandling of the conventions of other performers was close enough to be in the same space as them, but far enough that we experience patterns we didn't quite expect. In other words, it was funny.

In the context of a global society, the vast array of options for social interaction is way more varied and complicated than our monkey brains were “designed” for. Given that we were built to deal with establishing a consensus on what is “cool” with a group of about a hundred naked and furry extended family members, it's no wonder that people miss the mark when trying to appeal to a nation of millions of television watchers. In the majority of our evolutionary development, not only would it be much easier to come to a consensus on what various interpersonal signals meant, it would be mandatory. In the harsh conditions of the wild, it would be imposed on your group by selective pressure to standardize your communications so as to thrive as a cohesive pack. In modern times, though, not only is it much harder to select the right signals, the selective pressure is much less. Ending up featured as a blooper in a collection of out-takes might seem incredibly embarrassing, but it's far lower stakes than being abandoned by your pack and left to die in the cold.

For hundreds of thousands of years, or maybe even millions if we include our pre-human ancestors, we constantly sought to perfect our pack cohesion through mutually agreed signals. And then, from the perspective of evolutionary time scales, BAM! Suddenly and without warning our social groupings are completely blown apart. I live 7,500 kilometres away from my birthplace, across terrain, mainly ocean, that would have been considered to be the boundaries of physical reality by earlier hominids. I live in a community of people who are mainly of a culture that is very different from mine, and a lot of the people I consider friends are also from equally far away places, with yet more variant cultures and world views. Every day I'm surrounded by strangers who, from a biological point of view, could be described as a completely new category of people by both not being in my pack and yet who are not enemies. The whole concept of benign strangers, like those who routinely sit around me in a coffee shop where we are not competitors for resources, is totally out of the ordinary for our species. I speak to some family and friends via the internet, some by video, and have very close personal connections to them, and yet they are in London, New York, Vancouver, and other places. It's possible now to know some people that you are almost never in physical contact with better than the person standing right beside you at a street corner. Not to mention all the peculiarities of knowing people through different media, like text, video, voice... I know people through mailing lists that I have never seen and never heard but have interacted with via text for years. You can now know people who don't know you, which is the definition of celebrity, which never existed for most of our evolution. All it takes these days is a blog and people can know something about you without you knowing who they are at all.

I could go on and on, and I already have, and still not cover all the differences between how we relate now and what we are evolved for. In that miasma of conditions around our relationships, it seems obvious to me, as I hope it is to you, that our humour response could get a lot of false positives.

It's a challenge for people to try and get across the right signals to each other, and we can all readily bring to mind instances where we missed the mark for whatever reason. For most of us, our teenage years were all about the desperate struggle to work out what those signals were, how to be in control of them, and how to read them in others. The simple act of wearing clothes comes with tons of interpersonal signal implications. Sometimes you wear a shirt and no one really thinks anything of it, sometimes you wear a shirt and everyone thinks it really suits you. Other times people think you look completely out of fashion. Sometimes, in a sweet spot amongst all the possibilities, the shirt you wear is not so close so everyone thought it was just another shirt, and not so far as to have people wondering why anyone would wear such an obviously unfashionable style. People laugh, leaving you wondering what went wrong when you were trying so hard to fit in.

As a person who not only performs comedy but runs comedy shows, I see many comedians get on stage and get laughs that are false positives all the time. It's no wonder, given all the complexities outlined above, that if false positives can happen when trying to build a sincere relationship then false positives would only be that much more likely when trying to build a relationship intended to inspire laughter. Part of the skills a comedian has to master is not only learning to get people to laugh, but to get them to laugh when intended, and not mistake the wrong kind of laughter for success.

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