Tag Archives: Psychology

You’re nicer than I think – and I have science that proves it

One of the oldest philosophical debates out there is about the simple question: is man good or is he evil? Now I’ve personally been an apostle of the musician Tom Waits on this one. He has a great lyric that goes ‘if there’s one thing you can say about mankind it’s that there’s nothing kind about man.’

However, new scientific results seem to put both me and Tom to shame. The science in question can be found in the cheerily named paper ‘Simulating murder: The aversion to harmful action’ which can be found in the American Psychological Association’s PsycNET.

In it, Fiery Cushman (no kidding, that’s a real name), Kurt Gray, Allison Gaffey and Wendy Berry Mendes ‘[…]demonstrate that unwillingness to endorse harm in a moral dilemma is predicted by individual differences in aversive reactivity, as indexed by peripheral vasoconstriction.

This was done by ‘discharging a fake gun into the face of the experimenter, fully informed that the actions were pretend and harmless. These simulated harmful actions increased peripheral vasoconstriction significantly more than did witnessing pretend harmful actions or to performing metabolically matched non-harmful actions.’

The team found that ‘[…]the aversion to harmful actions extends beyond empathic concern for victim harm. Together, these studies demonstrate a link between the body and moral decision-making processes.’

In short, you could say that we’re good on a biological level, which can be proved by firing blanks into the face of researchers. By God, I would have liked to be part of that study…

A slightly longer analysis than that can be found here.

That’s funny and I can prove it!

First, this joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.

He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”

If you don’t think that’s funny, you’re wrong. How can I say that? Well, I have science to back me up.

OK, so the science comes from a place that calls itself LaughLab, but their science is no….OK, I’m not going to go there…

Where I will go is to psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman, from the University of Hertfordshire, who was part of LaughLab. In 2002 he put together a list of more than 40,000 jokes got a total of almost two million ratings of how funny they were. And in this case of evaluating jokes, democracy = science.

The results were that some jokes tested well across demographies, while others only scored highly within certain groups – such as adolescent men, for example.  A somewhat surprising find for the Brits carrying out the study was that the Germans actually found just about all the collected jokes funny and did not express a strong preference for any specific kind of joke.

This might, of course, be a case of not knowing what to laugh at and deciding to laugh at everything just to be sure.

Fast forward to the end of 2011 and cue Matthew Hurley from MIT. Hurley is the co-author of “Inside Jokes: Using Humour or to Reverse-Engineer the Mind”. If that isn’t a barnstormer of a title, I don’t know what is….

However, the results found by Hurley and his colleague are actually pretty darn interesting.

Hurley and his co-authors start with an idea that our brains make sense of our daily lives via a never ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. Basically, we sort of see parts of the world and then make the rest of it up as we go along. Now our best guesses simplify our world, helps us understand other people and help simplify our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can snowball into a massive mistake.

Enter mirth/humour which, in the scenario described above becomes a sort of little treat the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humour basically works like the endorphins released after working out – much like the treats you use to train a dog.

For more on this pretty interesting take on what humour is and what it does, go to this interview Hurley did with the Boston Globe.