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Psychologist Finds Truth in Chris Rock’s Insights About Human Behavior

Evolutionary psychology and comedian Chris Rock have both grown increasingly prominent over the past quarter-century (Cornwell, Palmer, Guinther, & Davis, 2005; Silverman & Fisher, 2001; Webster, 2007a,b; “The Time 2008 Top 100,” 2008).  This may not be mere coincidence.  While evolutionary psychology (EP) has blossomed because of its unique ability to explore human nature, Rock’s stand-up routines have vaulted him into the pantheon of comedic talents because they reflect human nature.

Or so I argue in a forthcoming article in Review of General Psychology (Kuhle, 2012).  Intentionally or not, Rock’s comedy is based on a sophisticated appreciation and invocation of humans’ evolved psychology.  Conventional wisdom and recent EP research suggest that “something is funny because it’s true” (Clarke, 2010; Flamson & Barrett, 2008; Lynch, 2010).  This perspective on humor rings especially true in Rock’s routines.  The hilarity of his stand-up stems, in part, from his invocations of sex differences in the evolved psychological mechanisms underlying romantic relationships. Popular culture such as Rock’s comedy can provide a window into human nature as “the patterns of culture that we create and consume, although not adaptations in themselves, reveal human evolutionary psychology” (Buss, 2012, p. 428).

I aim to persuade you of this by reviewing EP theory and evidence that underpin 22 of Rock’s routines on romantic relationships from his five HBO comedy specials.  As a warm-up for his stand-up, I begin by briefly exploring several definitions of humor and theories of its adaptive function.

What is Humor?

Much like its varieties, definitions of humor abound.  Some are poetic, as when Darwin likened humor to a “tickling of the mind” (1872, p. 218).  Some are bookish: among its 18 senses of the term, The Oxford English Dictionary soberly defines humor as “that quality of action, speech, or writing, which excites amusement; oddity, jocularity, facetiousness, comicality, fun,” (Humor, n.d.a).  Others are, well, humorous: Urban Dictionary offers, “what makes the worst moments of our already miserable existence that more bearable” (Humor, n.d.b).  Although no universally agreed upon definition of humor exists, in his impressively thorough text on the psychology of humor, Rod A. Martin captures its essence as:

anything that people say or do that is perceived as funny and tends to make others laugh, as well as the mental processes that go into both creating and perceiving such an amusing stimulus, and also the affective response involved in enjoyment of it. (2007, p. 5)

Why Do We Produce Humor?

There is no shortage of benefits that humor may have conferred on our ancestors.  Dozens of evolutionary hypotheses of humor have been proposed (for reviews see Martin, 2007; Polimeni & Reiss, 2006; Schmidt & Williams, 1971; Tisljar & Bereczhei, 2005; Vaid, 1999).  Most accounts fall into one of ten categories.  Humor is variously hypothesized to have evolved to: (1) promote social bonding (Dunbar, 1996; Dunbar et al., 2011); (2) facilitate cooperation (Jung, 2003); (3) disable pursuit of counterproductive paths (Chafe, 1987); (4) signal that a stimulus is non-threatening (Hayworth, 1928; Ramachandran, 1997); (5) signal interest in pursuing and maintaining social relationships (Li et al., 2009); (6) promote social learning (Fredrickson, 1988; Gervais & Wilson, 2005; Weisfeld, 1993); (7) manipulate status (Alexander, 1986; Pinker, 1997); (8) make finding and fixing inference errors fun (Hurley, Dennett, & Adams, 2011); (9) court mates (Miller, 1997; 2000); and (10) signal shared knowledge, attitudes, and preferences (Flamson & Barrett, 2008).  These theories vary widely in their theoretical coherency, aspects of humor accounted for, falsifiability, and empirical support.  The last theory is particularly well fleshed-out and relevant to the present discussion.

Humor as a Cue to Shared Common Knowledge

Although numerous theories of humor’s function have been put forward over the last two decades, only recently has an evolutionary perspective on humor’s origin also shed light on what makes something funny.  Conventional wisdom has long held that we find things funny because we find them to be true.  The “it’s funny because it’s true” premise is commonly used by stand-up comedians (Clarke, 2010, p. 86).  Jerry Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed …,” and Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if…,” are observational forms of comedy predicated on the audience seeing the “truth” in the comedians’ perspectives.  According to evolutionary anthropologists Tom Flamson and Clark Barrett’s (2008) encryption theory of humor, shared background knowledge (conceptions of what is true) is central to humor production being appreciated.

In a successful joke, both the producer and the receiver share common background knowledge – the key – and the joke is engineered in such a way (including devices like incongruity) that there is a nonrandom fit between the surface utterance and this background knowledge that would only be apparent to another person with the background knowledge.  Humor therefore guarantees or makes highly likely that specific, hidden knowledge was necessary to produce the humorous utterance, and that the same knowledge is present in anyone who understands the humor (Flamson & Barrett, 2008, p. 264).

Humor can thus serve as a means of assessing the shared underlying knowledge, attitudes, and preferences of others and “works, in a sense, as a mind readingspot-check, ‘pinging’ various minds in the environment and discovering those which are most compatible” (Flamson & Barrett, 2008, p. 266).  Ancestral humans could have used reactions to humor in their attempts to assort on shared attitudes, interests, backgrounds, and goals, which would have allowed like-minded individuals to better form successful cooperative alliances and accrue the myriad fitness benefits that flow from them.

As Lynch (2010) notes in his nifty test of the “because it’s true” perspective on humor, one reason some find Homer Simpson’s above toast funny is because they share with Homer the sobering awareness that alcohol can be used to escape from hardships that alcohol itself gave rise to (Groening, 2004). In this study, Lynch had participants watch 30-minutes of stand-up, scored their laughter using the facial action coding system, and measured their preferences using computer-timed Implicit Association Tests.  As predicted, students laughed more at the specific bits that matched their implicit preferences.  What they found to be true they found to be funny.  Experiments by Flamson and Barrett (2008) showing that prior familiarity with a joke’s topic plays an important role in perceiving the joke as humorous also support the perspective that something is funny because it is true. It appears that, unless you’re The Most Interesting Man in the World, you’re unlikely to have inside jokes with complete strangers unless they share the requisite background knowledge that underlies the joke.  

Much of Rock’s riffs on sex and marriage ring true and hence funny with his audiences because he deftly evokes their understanding of evolved sex differences in human mating strategies (Buss, 2003).  Rock’s ability to induce laughter by shining a comedic light on humans’ universal nature is evidenced in the cross-cultural appeal of his most recent, Emmy Award winning HBO special, Kill the Messenger, which director Marty Callner spliced together from Rock’s performances in London, U.K., Harlem, U.S., and Johannesburg, S.A.  Before unpacking the evolutionary theory and empirical evidence underlying 22 bits on human mating from Rock’s five HBO comedy specials, three disclaimers are warranted.

First, to preserve their artistic integrity and humor, unedited clips and transcriptions of relevant portions of Rock’s bits are used, and these often include profane, sexist, NSFW language.  As a bit’s funniness is in part a function of its content and its delivery, it is important to render Rock’s riffs as he delivered them.  Amending Rock’s humor by sanitizing it would threaten its funniness and undermine a central tenet of my main thesis (Chris Rock is funny because he evokes our evolved psychology).  Additionally, sanitizing his humor by omitting or obscuring vulgar words smacks of snobbery and elitism.  Surely we are not so precious that we cannot allow our scholarly minds to encounter the real life comedy that people around the real world find really funny. Moreover, sanitizing Rock’s bits by omitting or obscuring profane language with $&!% or f–k is uglier than the words themselves.  Quiet ironically, such devices serve to highlight the inclusion of forbidden words as the “words” now pop-off the page.  There is no reason to draw any unnecessary attention to his use of profanity.  Worse still, such devices unnecessarily tax the reader by purposely making sentences less intelligible.

Second, discussion of Rock’s material and the theory and evidence in support of his contentions are in no way whatsoever an endorsement or excuse for the behavior described.  As has been thoroughly discussed by Pinker (2002), to conclude that something evolved or natural is inherently acceptable or permissible is to commit the naturalistic fallacy, and is, quite simply, moronic. (See my previous blog for an example of how gender feminists frequently commit this fallacy.)

Third, although a sure-fire way to ruin a joke is to explain it, that risk is knowingly undertaken here.  Mining Rock’s humor for its reflections of human nature may dampen its comedic value, but I have succeeded if its intellectual underpinnings are laid bare.

The bits I’ll discuss here and over the next few blogs were selected because they illustrate mating domains explored by evolutionary psychologists that coincide with the various stages of many romantic relationships.  As many mateships begin, I begin with a bit on opposite-sex friendships, before proceeding to discuss routines on mate preferences and mate attraction tactics.  Subsequent blogs will flesh-out Professor Rock’s musings on conflict between romantic partners, parenting, infidelity, and divorce.

To read the entire story by Barry X. Kuhle, go to Psychology Today



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