This post is about how subjective morality relates to what you think is funny. In other words, how offended can you be before a joke is not funny to you?
Answer and Life Pro Tip: know your audience. To state the obvious.
We don’t know why the tuna-inspired humor of Upper West Side divorcees Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland strikes us as hilarious. But a recent paper points to our moral insensitivity to all things Gil and George. We deconstruct our funny bone, and, for your consideration without our comment, we present Too Many Cooks.
The paper: Kruschke, John K. and Vollmer, Allison, Moral Foundation Sensitivity and Perceived Humor (July 21, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2519218.
The authors point out a key function of humor is to
. . .enhance affiliation of ingroups, mark boundaries of outgroups, and enforce norms. Thus, humor can often be a moral device.. . .[and, when addressing humor more centrally] by theories of morality,  humor can be both an internal emotion and a public display of shared values for group affiliation and cohesion.
Humor-theorists attempt to quantify this and predict how funny you’ll find something (Figure 1): The further away you are (psychologically, axis Y) from the butt of the joke, the more severe the joke can be for you to find it funny (axis X). (Figure 1A.) But, there is a point at which the joke becomes too severe, and thus not funny. (Figure 1B.)*
Prior papers (McGraw and colleagues) studied the Y axis – distance. Psychological “distance” can be temporal, or even geographic. Temporally, a car accident today is not funny, but one from 10 years ago might be. As for geographic distance, the authors point out , “. . .distant tragedies can be humorous, and nearby mishaps can be humorous, but not nearby tragedies (which are too threatening) nor distant mishaps (which do not constitute a noticeable violation).” We all sort of know this, and distance/severity is a convenient way to systematize it.
McGraw and colleagues also started asking questions about the X-axis — how far can you go on being offensive, before the joke isn’t funny? **
The Kruschnke and Vollmer paper here further expands on this X-axis — how severe the joke can be before it is de-funnified. They found that the severity is largely subjective, depending on moral sensitivity.
For this research, the study subjects took a morality test before exposure to jokes. They then determined if the jokes were funny to them, subjectively. Result: the more morally sensitive on a particular issue, the narrower the range on the x-axis. In other words, people who get all huffy about some moral issue are unlikely to enjoy jokes about that issue.
The researchers paired morality, as determined by a moral foundation questionnaire, with jokes they found on the internet. Subjects were asked to scale the jokes (1-7, 7=high) on funniness and else aversiveness/disturbingness.
Here are the moral foundations and the corresponding jokes (block quote combines the moral foundations and the jokes into one):
1. Harm/care: basic concerns for the suffering of others, including virtues of caring and compassion.
Example of a joke targeting care/harm:[Cartoon of a porcupine that has just impaled many quills into the nose of a dog. [Dog says in caption:] “Well, on the plus side, you’ve cured my back pain.”
2. Fairness/reciprocity: concerns about unfair treatment, inequality, and more abstract notions of justice.
Example of a joke targeting fairness:[Cartoon of three middle-aged white men dressed in business suits having a conversation over drinks.] Caption:“As far as I’m concerned, they can do what they want with the minimum wage, just as long as they keep their hands off the maximum wage.”
3. Ingroup/loyalty: concerns related to obligations of group membership, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice and vigilance against betrayal.
Example of a joke targeting loyalty/ingroup:
[Cartoon of several guys wearing white shirts with neck ties in a business office,with one guy gagged and tied to a chair while other guys shred and burn papers in a waste basket.] Caption:“First rule — what happens in accounting stays in accounting.”
4. Authority/respect: concerns related to social order and the obligations of hierarchical relationships, such as obedience, respect, and proper role fulfillment.
Example of a joke targeting authority:
[Edited excerpt from stand-up routine:]
What’s funny to me is everybody loves the troops but everybody also kind of hates the police, where they’re kind of doing the same job. Like if you asked the average American, “How do you feel about the troops?”
“Love the troops, support the troops.”
“Well, how do you feel about the police?”
“Oh, fuck the police.”
“Well, why sir? Why ‘fuck the police’?”
“A cop’s a guy who thinks he’s a big man just because he’s got a gun.”
“Well, a troop is also a big man with a gun.”
“Yeah, yeah, but a troop is freedom, America. Cops – they took my weed, man!”
5. Purity/sanctity: concerns about physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness and control of desires. Example of a joke targeting purity/sanctity:
[Cartoon of a man sitting on a bench seat on a subway train, taking up the whole seat.] Caption above cartoon:
“Another way to keep an empty seat beside you on the train.”
[The man’s t-shirt says:]
“Ask me about my religion.”
Aversiveness: Figure 2 (below, just look at the blue lines) shows that the more sensitive you are to a moral foundation, the more aversive you find the relevant joke.
Humor: Figure 3 (below, looking at the blue lines) shows that more morally sensitive you are to a moral foundation, the less funny the relevant joke is to you (an inverted “U” shape).
Again, this is something we all probably knew (that is, we’re all sociologists without the degree, to some extent). But, also, it explains why some people tell such awful, tone-deaf “jokes” – they think we have the same moral sensitivities.
We saw this in play recently. At charitable events your loyal bloggist sometimes attends (mostly out of harassment), one of the regular speakers tells “jokes” that sound like Fox News humor. This individual seems oblivious to the audience, except for a few tee-many-martoony-esque buddies sitting up front.
This SF Bay Area crowd reached its limit, believe you me. So, another donor — one high on the Berklier-than-thou scale (copyright, I just made up that diagnostic, mostly based on whether they ask for animal-free climbing shoes at REI), published a restrained-yet-morally-superior editorial in the charity bulletin, dressing down these “jokes.”
Eh. You could see it coming a mile away.
1. Harm/care/compassion: We’d probably score high on this morality foundation (we have, after all, rs53576GG). Gil and George are distorted, amplified versions of entitled Upper-West-Side intellectuals, who use the tuna prank as a vehicle for displaying their cluelessness. Compassion? Empathy? Introspection? Nah. But, they’re mostly harmless (not severe), so it works.
Being diagnosed with mercury poisoning (like Freddy Mercury, as George points out, in the video above), is still funny (not severe).
What about when George says to the female doctor, “you’ve just been pranked you idiot, you stupid bitch?” We find this hilariously shocking — because it shows how awful, awful, awful these two personas actually are. But, we can see how some people would find this too severe, and unfunny.
We request: Gil and George should do a “too much tuna” experiment (for scyiyieence, natch) to see when it becomes offensive.
2. Fairness/reciprocity: We’re probably somewhat sensitive to this moral foundation, but not to the libertarian extreme. Gil and George’s have a smarmy Upper West Side sense of entitlement — but not too severe.
3. Ingroup/loyalty: Gil and George display that in-group/loyalty to each other, and so it’s funny to us. We don’t see this as overly trivializing in-group loyalty. We think it would be unfunny if Gil pranked George with poison tuna, for instance.
4. Authority/respect: In one episode, Gil and George prank Gil’s stepson with too much tuna — totally violating any parental-authority — for instance, offering “Dr. Wong,” a “back-alley guy,” (“the doorbell says, ‘Party Planner USA’ George helpfully points out), should the stepson get a girl “in trouble.” (“Dr. Wong” is a repeated reference, and we could see how the racism could be unfunny.)
5. Purity/sanctity: So, Gil and George violate purity/sanctity all over the place. They present their lack of wholesomeness/uncontrolled desires with that 1970s Upper-West-Side pseudo-intellectual smarm. Too severe? No.
What would make George and Gil unfunny to us? If they actually had more social power — like if they were head of a big bank, selling to a pension fund a synthetic package of loans bound to fail, while shorting them for their own account. We’d find that offensive.
Too much tuna? Oh, Hello.
How about too many cooks? (h/t Gawker)
Also, see Reddit.
*A note about what psychopaths find funny: Because psychopaths aren’t morally sensitive to virtually anything, they can find even the most severe-gag funny. So, when Dr. Melfi asks Tony Soprano to tell her about a time his family was happy, he recounts a time when his father fell down a flight of cement stairs, and everyone laughed. (Sorry, couldn’t find episode.) The psychopaths in our orbit tend only to laugh upon someone’s impending demise. Because they are so sensitive to any personal remarks, they are offended by virtually all conversation unless it involves them being correct/powerful, or else someone else being wrong/powerless. One suspected psychopath we knew (now dead) stopped talking to her neighbor of 25 years, because the neighbor wouldn’t feed her cat the psychopath’s recommended cat food.
**The authors are careful to point out that their research started prior to the McGraw group’s suggestion. Academia and all. Let’s just have some blanket rule that no one invents anything from scratch, and everyone builds on each other’s researches, and it’s all good. Now kiss.