The Science of Expectation: Using Humor To Understand Creativity
In his autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, British actor David Niven writes about an instance when the American playwright and screenwriter Charles MacArthur approached Charlie Chaplin for advice on how to improve the classic banana peel sequence, in which a person slips on a banana peel and falls to the ground. MacArthur wondered if his scene should start with a shot of a fat lady and then go to the banana peel or vice versa. Chaplin suggested that MacArthur start the scene with the fat lady, cut to the peel, cut to a wide shot of the fat lady approaching the peel, back to the peel, and then, right before stepping on the peel, she steps over it and falls into an open manhole.
Why is this funny? Despite their surface diversity, most jokes are built using the same set of blueprints: they lead us down a path of expectations, build up tension, and at the end, introduce a twist that teases our initial expectations in a clever way. Humor arrives when we figure out how the punch line both broke and fulfilled our expectations. When this occurs we experience mirth, the reward of successfully connecting the dots of a joke. It’s the “a-ha” moment of comedy, or what we feel when we “get” it.
In the book Inside Jokes cognitive scientists Matthew Hurley, Dan Dennett and Reginald Adams explore humor, jokes, and mirth with an evolutionary lens. They begin with the premise that the brain simplifies the world by creating and relying on a never-ending series of assumptions. This cognitive shortcut allows us to comfortably exist in the day-to-day without having to worry about trivial matters, but mistakes are inevitable and the brain sometimes guesses incorrectly. Mirth, according to the scientists, is an evolutionary adaptation that evolved to reward the brain when it corrects a mistaken assumption about the world; it helps our neurons stay on the lookout for the gaps between our assumptions and reality.
Humor takes advantage of this cognitive system by delivering super normal stimuli in the same way Big Macs and pornography deliver super normal stimuli for our appetite and libido. Like a good chef or porn star, a good comedian reverse engineers the mind to create jokes that generate the most mirth.
Bad comedians fail because they lead us down a path of expectations without challenging our assumptions. This was MacArthur’s problem. His take on the banana peel sequence wasn’t funny because it didn’t fake anybody out. Like a one-hit wonder on repeat, it was boring because it lacked an “a-ha” moment. It didn’t allow us to connect the dots.
Cognitive scientists refer to the idea that humor is the result of ideas that run against our expectations as the incongruity-resolution theory (I-R theory). I-R theories differ – Hurley and his co-authors only partially endorse it – but a quick search on Wikipedia reveals this definition: “The incongruity theory states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.”
A notable version of I-R theory comes from a 1964 book by Arthur Koestler. In The Act of Creation Koestler proposes that laughter is provoked when one frame of reference bumps up against an anomaly, an event or statement that doesn’t make sense in context to the original frame. Puns in knock-knock jokes are a good example. The first response to “Who’s there?” is usually an ordinary word or phrase. The subsequent answer uses the same word or phrase in a different way while still making sense. Resolving the anomaly (i.e., figuring out the pun) gives rise to mirth and laughter.
Here’s a non knock-knock joke from Steven Pinker’s How The Mind Works that illustrates the same point:
Lady Astor said to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your tea.” He replied, “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
Drawing on Koestler’s theory of humor, Pinker explains that in the frame of reference of murder, the joke isn’t funny. But once the audience switches to the frame of reference of suicide, in which death is a welcomed escape from misery, the humor is obvious. When this happens, Lady Astor is the cause of marital misery, not a murderer.
Koestler’s The Acts of Creation goes beyond humor to argue that art and science are also about exploring and resolving the juxtaposition between inconsistent frames. He uses the term “bisociation” to capture this idea, which he describes as “the perceiving of a situation or idea . . . in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.” He concludes that creativity is the bisociation of previously unrelated frames of reference, or “matrices of thought.”
Koestler’s theory is broad and not error free, but it identifies two key components of art. One is that art is intimately connected to expectations. Audiences seek art that fulfills expectations; they’re pleased when this happens and disappointed when it doesn’t. Preferences form when this process compounds over time. The result is our tendency to gravitate towards the same artists and listen to or watch the same pieces of art over and over again. Like a Democrat who watches MSNBC or a Republican who watches Fox News, people discriminate between artists who confirm their preconceived notions of good art.
Another is that great art is about manipulating expectations. Artists who appeal to the mainstream are rarely remembered for being groundbreaking. Millions love bands like Coldplay, but it’s the Stravinskys who go down in history. The reason is the difference between MacArthur’s take on the banana sequence and Chaplin’s. MacArthur’s version was moderately funny because it incorporated an element of slapstick (or Schadenfreude, the German word that describes the pleasure we receive from another’s misfortune). But if the fat lady had only slipped on the banana peel the joke would only confirm our expectations. Chaplin’s version was better because it caught our expectations off guard. Like The Rite of Spring, it made us think twice.
This is not to say that creativity is only about breaking rules. There are plenty of conventionalists who make great art by reinforcing preconceptions. But it is to say that most eminent creators are driven to break rules knowing that violating an expectation is often times more enjoyable than fulfilling one. They appreciate the difference between the banana peel and the manhole.
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.
Hungarian cartographer travels the world while mapping its treasures.
- Simple idea, stunning result: the world's watersheds in glorious colors.
- The maps are the work of Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs.
- His job: to travel and map the world, one good cause at a time.
The world<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzU3Njk1M30.rRdZpcl0bfVi4oBsljHdZSbcX0New9rdLcx6fr2mD7Y/img.png?width=980" id="f982a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fa67421340f881d5ab91463514cf9a6d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Can you spot the world's ten largest drainage basins? In order of magnitude: Amazon, Congo, Nile, Mississippi, Ob, Parana, Yenisei, Lena, Niger, Amur. Image source: Grasshopper Geography
Africa<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTI2MzI0MX0.OeTS-scZwBES4AlZAan7fBlaBkznkig5hPjgcd1j6hw/img.png?width=980" id="e987c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2d3a8999ed4071a123b30efc5652fee9" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Africa is home to the rivers with the world's second- and third-largest catchment areas: the Congo (in blue), with a basin of 1.44 million square miles (3.73 million km2), and the Nile (in red), with basin area of 1.26 million square miles (3.25 million km2). The Nile is the longest river in Africa, though (4,130 miles; 6,650 km), followed by the Congo: 2,900 miles (4,700 km). The Congo River's alternative name, Zaire, comes from the Kikongo nzadi o nzere ('river swallowing rivers'). Image source: Grasshopper Geography
Europe<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTkzOTMyMH0.tq5fjnq8wvLqXY0C9gzfoUd0ahOAQ7IZQxbpVnC1FdY/img.png?width=980" id="a8ec4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1ce5f59691501103343e080905ce74a3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The Volga (in yellow) is the river with the biggest catchment area in Europe (just under 545,000 square miles; 1.41 million km2). It flows exclusively through Russia, and the catchment area is entirely within Russia as well. Europe's number two is the Danube (in orange), which flows through 10 countries — more than any other river in the world. Its drainage basin (just over 307,000 square miles; almost 796,000 km2) includes nine more countries. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Germany<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzMC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzk4ODA3Nn0.qX1sOfJWAI7TUbTQCiIob-R5p4_wj299wEtrYAUREmg/img.png?width=980" id="d5efa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8e73c53d75840f21b4f2ca4b8a1e7f51" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The hydrographic map of Germany is dominated by just four major drainage systems: the Danube (in orange) in the south, the Rhine (in blue) in the west, the Elbe (in purple) in the east and the Weser (in green) between the latter two. In Antiquity, the Rhine was the border between the Roman Empire and the Germans. Rome once attempted to shift the border to the Elbe, which would have radically altered the course of history, but it suffered a massive defeat in 9 CE at the Teutoburger Wald (roughly between both rivers). Image: Grasshopper Geography
Great Britain and Ireland<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTk2MjM3MX0.nDy__OLIyC1arty4_2xd54fjTzmfsIZo-2pe5QRjjA4/img.png?width=980" id="31a6f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d089f66097f37a10ab854eaccdac3581" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Both Ireland and Great Britain are islands, as a result of which neither boasts a continental-class river. Twenty of the 30 longest British rivers are less than 100 miles (160 km) long. The longest river in Britain is the Severn (220 miles, 354 km), its catchment area shown in blue in the southwest. Ireland's longest river is the Shannon (224 miles, 360 km). Even combined they're not as long as France's Seine (483 miles, 777 km). Image: Grasshopper Geography
United States<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDYyMzEyM30.7S_83dA6bcLyID_7BhH1R_OTy61tpgDZrBMQ_iPwnjM/img.png?width=980" id="a879d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a7c74a7b5a7887fb2d13b40d5d96223c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Spread-eagled across the central part of the United States, the Mississippi's drainage basin covers all or parts of 32 U.S. states (and two Canadian provinces). The easternmost point of Ol' Man River's catchment area is really far east: Cobb Hill in northern Pennsylvania. Here rises the Allegheny, tributary of the Ohio, which in turn flows into the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Washington State<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MzU2MzM4OH0.mniqbkEQq84rNaWOQIl4fB4mOhNdJf5WactNyE_VsyM/img.png?width=980" id="adc4d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97eb5a5add49c06ef00ff0bca812b380" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Even leaving out the Mississippi, there's enough going on in the rest of North America to keep the eye occupied. Here's a drainage map of Washington State. The big fish in this much smaller pond is the Columbia River (drainage area in blue), the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. Only in the western third of the state is there a colourful counterpoint, in the multitude of smaller river basins that are draining into the Pacific or into Puget Sound. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Australia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTM0ODM2NH0.U7vckwnoNoxf-bk8SuYO246hNMpR2zXILILsd4pas9o/img.png?width=980" id="38c2b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0c44d30d61c6cb94b8d5c7205cbabd58" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
At 1,558 miles (2,508 km), the Murray is Australia's longest river. It is often considered in conjunction with the Darling (915 miles, 1,472 km), the country's third-longest river, which flows into the Murray. The Murray-Darling basin (in blue, in the southeast) covers just under 410,000 square miles (1.06 million km2), or 14 percent of Australia's total territory. Don't let that spidery network of river courses in the interior fool you: Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent (Antarctica, bizarrely, is drier). Image: Grasshopper Geography
Russia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNy9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzg5MzIxOX0.WhShHLjjWdEh4FF_OZsY1oTN3Vc77X29TbMYbVHrHqA/img.png?width=980" id="f5cee" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="53acd93f1ab67be979e6ab128c144ce6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Four of the world's largest drainage basins are in Russia: the Ob, Yenisei and Lena (origin of Vladimir I. Ulyanov's nom de guerre, Lenin) entirely and the Amur, shared with China. The Volga may be Europe's longest river, but 84 percent or Russia's surface water is east of the Urals, in Siberia. The sparsely-populated region is traversed by 40 rivers longer than 1,000 km. Combined, the Ob, Yenisey and Lena rivers cover a drainage area of about 8 million km2, discharging nearly 50,000 m3 of water per second in the Arctic. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Scientists have found evidence of hot springs near sites where ancient hominids settled, long before the control of fire.
Finances can be a stressor, regardless of tax bracket. Here are tips for making better money decisions.
- Whether you have a lot of money or a lot of debt, it matters how you handle your personal finances. A crucial step when it comes to saving is to reassess your relationship with money and to learn to adopt a broader, more logical point of view.
- In this video, social innovator and activist Vicki Robin, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, and author Bruce Feiler offer advice on achieving financial independence, learning to control your emotions, spending smarter, and teaching children about money.
- It all starts with education and understanding. The more you know about how money works, the better you will be at avoiding mistakes and the easier it will be to take control of your financial circumstances.