Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Muffin Joke Is So Funny!

Jack Balkin says that the muffin joke is so funny:

Balkinization: Repeat after me: The Muffin Joke is NOT funny: This article [by John Tierney] in the New York Times asserts that the muffin joke is not funny; we only laugh at it because we want to get along with other people in social situations.I disagree. When I first heard the muffin joke, I thought it was very funny. Still do.... The muffin joke is funny because it is self-undermining. The punch line undermines the suspension of disbelief that the joke's narrative presumes. It is kind of like breaching the fourth wall in drama. It's like the line in Dr. Strangelove "You can't fight in here. This is the War Room!" or the Atheist Hymn we came up with in high school: "There is no God, there is no God, He told me so himself"...

I agree: I think the muffin joke is so funny. Why, it is even funny when told by as low-status an individual as John Tierney:

What’s So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing - New York Times: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud and the many theorists who have tried to explain laughter based on the mistaken premise that they’re explaining humor. Occasionally we’re surprised into laughing at something funny, but most laughter has little to do with humor. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along....

“Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioral fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.”... Professor Panksepp thinks the brain has ancient wiring to produce laughter so that young animals learn to play with one another. The laughter stimulates euphoria circuits in the brain and also reassures the other animals that they’re playing, not fighting. “Primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction,” Professor Panksepp says. “Sophisticated social animals such as mammals need an emotionally positive mechanism to help create social brains and to weave organisms effectively into the social fabric.”...

Which brings us back to the muffin joke. It was inflicted by social psychologists at Florida State University on undergraduate women.... The women put in the underling position were a lot more likely to laugh at the muffin joke (and others almost as lame) than were women in the control group.... In some cases the woman watching was designated the boss; in other cases she was the underling or a co-worker of the person on the videotape. When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good...

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