Laughing strategy

People who believe that a certain group of other people deserve higher relative status often refuse to laugh at jokes about that group of people. Unfortunately (for them) this tends to make them look like uptight goody-goodies who don’t have a sense of humor; a group whom almost everyone agrees should have low status. Why not instead focus on making up more jokes about the group whose relative status seems too high? It seems like that should have the opposite effect on the campaigners likability, and so also encourage more people to join that side of the fight. What am I missing?

22 responses to “Laughing strategy

  1. Making up good jokes is harder than disapproving of jokes?

  2. High status groups already make lots of jokes about themselves, and other high status groups.

    Being able to take a joke is itself high status; since as you say, it’s only low status groups that anyone refuses to laugh at on principle.

  3. Here’s a simple model. There are 100 groups. I want to raise the status of 5, decrease the status of 20, and maintain the current status of the other 75. If I raise the status of the favored groups by interfering with jokes about them, this slightly lowers the status of the other 95 (per capita losses of about 1/19th the per capita gains to the favored groups). If I instead make up jokes to lower the status of the disfavored 20, then the benefits in increased status are shared among the other 80, with only 1/16th of the status gains going to my favored group.

    • I have a bad habit of dividing the set of all humans into two groups in any given situation. If liberals are mocked, the status of conservatives goes up; nobody else gets any consideration. Am I abnormal? Or do you have a different situation in mind, Carl?

  4. When person P refuses to laugh at a joke about group X in presence of both Y (an anti-X individual) and Z (a pro-X individual), three things are going on:

    1) he’s acting to increase the status of X by raising the cost of making jokes about X

    2) he’s lowering his status in the eyes of Y (who now sees P as uptight)

    3) he’s increasing his status in the eyes of Z (who now sees P as enlightened and wise).

    Your model covers points 1 and 2, but not point 3.

    E.g. men who refuse to laugh at jokes about dumb blondes … so that they’ve got a better chance of getting laid with the feminists who perceive their white knight / Sensitive New Age Guy behavior.

    • “E.g. men who refuse to laugh at jokes about dumb blondes … so that they’ve got a better chance of getting laid with the feminists who perceive their white knight / Sensitive New Age Guy behavior.”

      Are you claiming they think they have better odds, or that they actually have measurably better odds?

  5. erisiantaoist’s comment is probably the reason. Here’s another idea: people disapprove of jokes about low-status group in order to display their own sensitive nature (not in order to help the low-status group). Making up jokes about high-status groups does not communicate sensitivity.

  6. “People disapprove of jokes about low-status group in order to display their own sensitive nature ”

    In which case, the disapproval brings higher, rather than lower, status. I think that’s the main point Katja misses (to use her language)—a false premise. The source of the mistake might be more important; I think she confuses liking (the horizontal dimension) with status (the vertical dimension). Which goes to a problem of method; it’s become fashionable to invoke status as a universal explanation for human behavior without defining it.

    I discuss the implications of social position’s horizontal and vertical dimensions (on social formality in writing) in “The celebration of informality and the unsettled status of contractions.” —

  7. “People who believe that a certain group of other people deserve higher relative status often refuse to laugh at jokes about that group of people.”

    They may not find them funny. In which case it’s not a refusal to laugh, it’s an inability to laugh. It’s not that easy to pretend to laugh at something that isn’t funny (i.e. that you do not find funny, humor being subjective).

    “Unfortunately (for them) this tends to make them look like uptight goody-goodies who don’t have a sense of humor; a group whom almost everyone agrees should have low status.”

    So there you have a nice example of a hard to fake status signal. It’s hard to fake finding unfunny (to you) humor funny, which makes it easy for high status folk to distinguish themselves by finding it funny.

    “Why not instead focus on making up more jokes about the group whose relative status seems too high?”

    This is not either or. Suppose that I make up jokes about high status folks. This will not cause me to find humor at the expense of low status folk to be funny. It doesn’t address the problem of the unfunniness at all. It’s still unfunny.

    Moreover, if we simply ask the question, “do people make fun of high status folk”, the answer is an immediate “yes”. You have avoided specifics so I will as well.

    Nevertheless, there are sometimes dangers in making fun of high status folk. People can have their careers and lives ruined, can have their children seized, can be thoroughly screwed if they’re not careful about what they say. The commentators that I have in mind who freely (more freely than most) make fun of high status folk have careers that depend on an appreciative wide audience, that do not depend on working in a hierarchical organization that tends to be dominated by high status folk.

    “It seems like that should have the opposite effect on the campaigners likability, and so also encourage more people to join that side of the fight. What am I missing?”

    There are in fact commentators who make fun of high status folk and who become popular – but not universally popular. They are loathed by high status folk. If you want to know who these people are, just think of which widely listened-to commentators (radio commentators, columnists, tv show hosts) are hated and loathed by high status folk to the point, sometimes, of wishing them dead.

  8. “What am I missing?”

    Ever heard the saying, “two wrongs don’t make a right”?

    • Actually, let me take the opposite option.

      “What am I missing?”

      What you’re missing is that they are uptight goody-goodies who don’t have a sense of humor.

  9. This post annoys me, most of the responses annoy me, my own responses annoy me.

    When I first saw this post, yesterday or the day before, I was like, “what is she on about now?” I just had the instinctive sense that this was another post in a genre I’ll call “cluelessly calculating”. This genre combines aspie obliviousness to common sense with calculating Nietzschean amoralism. The background assumptions are: everything is about status, rational behavior is based entirely on status calculations, it’s mysterious why people aren’t hacking status psychology in some way that I just thought of. (Robin Hanson sometimes goes beyond this third step to a fourth stage: people aren’t doing this thing I just thought of that would satisfy their proclaimed values, therefore their true values must be something else.)

    A few days later, there are now comments on the post, and most of them are indeed about status status status: relative status, status signaling, struggle for status. Perhaps there is a selection effect: people who shared my “huh?” response didn’t even try to engage, and it was only the Nietzschean-aspie contingent, sharing the post’s sensibility, who bothered to speak up.

    My own comments annoy me because it seems that matters aren’t as simple as I first thought. That first comment was meant to explain the utterly obvious reason why people who disapprove of something don’t do it themselves. Then it occurred to me that in some cases, the refusal to see humor does indicate personal weakness – so, a second comment. And the more I think about it, the more this whole discussion potentially dissolves into a boring case-by-case study. I’m sure, if we bothered to think about it hard enough, that we could identify examples of groups, people, pursuing exactly the strategy which Katja suggests. Then we might want to discuss whether this is ever anything other than a counterattack, and also to discuss when it is that counterattack – playing dirty – is the right thing to do.

    Consider the different circumstances under which someone refuses to laugh at a joke. It might be because the joke is based on a truth that they deny; or it might be that the joke caters to ugly personality traits in the teller and the listener; or it might be that the joke is cruel for reasons that the laughers don’t understand. Now consider that a joke directed at the higher-status group might also have any of these characteristics. We have here a 3×3 matrix of nine possibilities, for those who want to do the factor analysis. This is what I mean by dissolving into a boring case-by-case study.

  10. Hello all,

    I hope I’m not intruding. I think Constant makes a good point. If we agree that all jokes are equally funny, and we decide to laugh, or not, based on some calculus about status, Katja’s question might be answered by describing a bit of logic missing from her descriptions of the strategies. We could suggest, for instance, that the kind of person who calculates his response to a joke is not the same kind of person who is good at making up jokes others are likely to find funny, so the social risk of that strategy is too high. But I don’t think the premise is sound, so Katja’s question might be unanswerable.

    The evolutionary basis for laughter seems to contradict Katja’s model.

    ” Laughter, like crying, is difficult to produce on
    command and, therefore, is an honest signal. We cannot deliberately activate the brain’s mechanism for affective expression—
    laughter is an unplanned response to social, cognitive, and linguistic cues. It follows that we should be skeptical of people’s post
    hoc reports of why they laughed (e.g., ‘‘I was nervous,’’ ‘‘I felt
    happy,’’ ‘‘Someone did something funny’’). Lawful social contingencies need not require conscious control. The literature of
    laughter and humor often neglects this fact, thus committing an
    error of intentionality (Provine, 2000), falsely assuming that
    laughter is a choice and under strong voluntary control.”

    Robert R. Provine,
    Laughing, Tickling, and the
    Evolution of Speech and Self

  11. what am I missing here?

    apart from that, that I am not thinking along dimensions like ‘status’ -maybe I should feel priviledged, living in an environment where one only thrives through merit.
    (Not meritocracy. just merit)

    My inner anarchist tells me, that anything remotely resembling ‘status’ should be the result of acclamation by the group, if ever.
    It depends on the structure of the society you consider.

    Think Cherokee or Navajos.
    Is there any motivation to laugh at ‘high status’ people in such a context?
    ‘Status’ is no applicable dimension here.

    On the other hand, I would laugh no end, when being part of the wallstreet-tribe, so that I would be out next, day,

    So what is the point?
    I do not understand.

    As a note.
    Daniel Kahneman deeply impressed me lately, by the subtlety of his argument and the profound humanity of his position, concerning a very applicable point to the one You posited here.
    (BBC–“making better judgements”)

    So, freely choosing him as one of my ‘peers’,
    hopefully reflects upon myself.
    A peer is no laughing matter. He is a willful choice of myself.
    So laughing at him would be to ridicule or fundamentally reposition MYSELF.
    Can happen.
    But only, when the peer does/talks awful things.
    But even this is no laughing matter.
    It is a matter of deep self-investigation.
    Can happen.
    But rarely it is a matter of a social activity like ‘laughing’.
    Laughing at high-status people, if there are any, (not in my world), is a matter of defective peer-group-relationship, and so the question of any decent person should be:
    How did I get into this terrible mess of defective peers, that something in me is forced to laugh at them?

  12. I feel like there must be more explanations than just “it’s about relative status.” I’m sure that there are people out there who don’t laugh about jokes on certain groups of people (say, immigrants) because they truly find them offensive. Those people would not laugh even knowing that it may make them seem uptight in the eyes of others because they truly don’t find anything laughable.

  13. Not laughing, or “not being able to take a joke”, is high status. One of function of laughter is to show recognition that a status-relevant event [either increasing or decreasing the status of one’s self or others] has occurred. That others might mock you as uptight behind your back is irrelevant if they feel too threatened to do it to your face.

    I suspect this is relevant to research Robin posted recently, showing that happiness is one of the least attractive emotions males can display; smiling is often used among humans as it is among chimps, to indicate submission.

  14. the question is:
    a) is ‘status’ an anthropological constant?
    (RH and his ‘tribe’ seem to say so)
    b) is it a figment of hierarchically structured societies?
    (no fundamental controversy here)
    c) is it a misconstrued wording, which demands for the explanation/archaeology of ‘meaning’? (Bedeutung erheischen. No good translation for that. Fee Frege: ‘Sinn und Bedeutung’. Long before Wittgenstein.)

    ‘Status’ to me is an artefact, or normative construct, which is applicable to groups/societies WHICH ACCEPT THAT AS A NORM.

    For anybody outside this norm this is either a laughing matter, or not understandable at all.

    Eg native american indians, who, one could say, established a meritocracy/status-society by the number of eagle-feathers or whatever.

    Which to me is a wrong attribution of categories.

    Because this would imply that the meaning of the word ‘status’ would be applicable to the semantic web, which the tribe has woven.
    Which is NOT. I repeat!

    The wannabe Anthropologist has two choices:
    a) to immerse into the semantic net of the tribe (difficult)
    b) to apply some anthropological constants, which recourse to a universal language of ‘meaning’. (nearly impossible)

    Maybe we should compromise on that, and be very careful with the universals.

    RH seems to have the ambition to construct such universals.

    And Katja is his true follower.

    What she effectively does, is to join a semantic tribe, which is inbreeding.

    Count me as not convinced.

  15. ‘Laughing strategy’

    Is this not a contradiction, which splits ‘laughing by heart’ apart from some calculated laugh?

    Rational laugh versus emotional laugh?
    You guess.

    At least the ‘rational’ people should be aware what they are ultimately laughing about,, and what impression their grimace eventually makes on the lesser people, who laugh by heart.

    ‘Strategically’ laughing is the method of the sociopath.

    Infant Dracula has to be educated.

    How to laugh?
    Obviously a fitness-problem.

  16. As a final note.
    The bad:
    I cannot laugh anymore.
    The good:
    I dont care anymore.
    Laughing -in the intermediate sense of connection between beings- is alien to me.
    There must be other connections, more important.

    A recent personal note:
    Today, a decent person went around in the office and was quite over the top about something, which I tried to understand, what she was so excited about.
    My rational –or may I say: -existentially frustrated- mind did not understand that.

    On the other hand, there was a shade of delight, that somebody could feel some heightened bodily existence, eg being pregnant and expecting a new being.
    Every new being has to be greeted and bemoaned at the same time.

    What the Olympean gods had to laugh about the human condition, I still do’nt know.

    Close the circle yourself, what this all has to do with ‘status’, and with the world at large.

    I do not know,
    and keep my category-space clean of this ‘status’ thingy, because I have no use of it.


  17. High Status vs Deservedly High Status are two different things.
    Likewise Low Status vs Deservedly Low Status.

  18. xd,
    my point is:
    Is ‘status’ a social construct or a ‘reality’?

    We are having difficulties identifying the ‘nature of an electron’, but on the other hand social scientists and certain philosophizing individuals, to be polite — actually ‘believe’ that ‘status’ is a universal category.

    ‘Status’ is a conceptual vehicle to ‘explain’ probabilistic relationships of certain people on the basis of a certain belief-system.

    If this is the case, count me as unimpressed.

  19. Hmm, maybe I won’t count you as unimpressed as you, in rejecting status, however it is ascribed, have really asked not to be included at all in the web of society. You are one, uncommanding of measured attention, respect or humour, a separate being, affiliated with none of societies constructs,possibly without pride, shame, guilt and selfconsciousness, perhaps unaware others may be bestowing these attributes upon you in your various roles in life. Congratulations, you might even have escaped the human conditions of judgement, affiliation, fear of rejection and being stuck in just one spot at the time and achieved Zen. Wow, what a high status master!
    PS I reckon status is a social construct that as social beings each belonging to many tribes, exists for us as a reality, but is variable within our different associations and unpredictable, perhaps because the fearless amongst us find it easy to laugh, even at important jokes like reality.


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