Sunday, March 4, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Different: The Psychology of Parody

I was a little late onto the Adele bandwagon. She had already released her album 19 and “Rolling in the Deep” was already a single when I finally gave her a shot - okay, I’ll be honest, it took a few listens to 21 before I decided to buy, and I still have some serious qualms about her singing technique; I mean, at only 23 years old, she’s already shredded her voice to the point that she needed surgery to save it. But then, I can’t help but sing along - loudly - anytime her music comes on the radio, and I definitely enjoyed the video for “Rolling in the Deep”, which - though it had some symbols I didn’t completely understand - was much more sensical than other videos I watched around that time.

So you might be surprised to hear that when Key of Awesome, a group who creates parody versions of music videos, made a parody of “Rolling in the Deep”, I loved it. In fact, I enjoy most of Key of Awesome’s videos, even (and perhaps especially) when they make fun of a song I enjoy.

This seems counterintuitive. Why would I enjoy seeing music I love being made fun of? But it’s something I’ve long been aware of about myself and others, and have wondered about occasionally. Today, I finally sat down and began to explore what it is about parody we find so funny.

You may not be surprised to know that humor is very important to human beings. Being able to see the humor in situations has mood-enhancing effects (Strick, Holland, van Baaren, & van Knippenberg, 2009) and is beneficial to our long-term well-being: Martin and colleagues (see Martin’s book for more information on this research) created a questionnaire to assess individuals’ humor styles: Self-Enhancing (being able to comfort oneself with humor), Affiliative (using humor to build relationships with others), Aggressive (sarcasm or teasing others), and Self-Defeating (using humor at one’s own expense); these styles are related to many measures of psychological well-being, such as satisfaction with life, self-esteem, optimism, and mood. Having high scores for Self-Enhancing and/or Affiliative humor is associated with greater well-being, and having high scores for Aggressive and/or Self-Defeating humor is associated with lower well-being.

Further, Galloway (2010) examined humor styles scores and found that there are four distinct groups: people high on all four styles of humor, people low on all four styles of humor, people high on self-enhancing and affiliative humor and low on aggressive and self-defeating humor, and people high on aggressive and self-defeating humor and low on self-enhancing and affiliative humor. Other researchers have attempted to take the field a step farther, examining what it is about certain situations or stimuli that make them funny. And it seems what it comes down to is setting things up so that perceivers expect a certain outcome… and then giving them something completely different. Strick and colleagues (2009) explain:

“A typical joke contains a set up that causes perceivers to make a prediction about the likely outcome. The punch line violates these expectations, and perceivers look for a cognitive rule that makes the punch line follow from the set up. When this cognitive rule is found, the incongruity is resolved and the joke is perceived as funny.” (p. 575).

In fact, research has shown that when we are unable to make sense of a joke - find a cognitive rule that “makes the punch line follow from the set up” - we find the joke to be less humorous. Which can be seen in practice by anyone who ever told a joke, only to be greeted by silence followed by “I don’t get it”.

Sigmund Freud called this incongruity experiencing the “uncanny” - encountering the unfamiliar in familiar situations. Absurdism is considered to be one form of uncanny-inducing stimuli. Freud argued that uncanniness was a thrilling state of arousal, though others have argued that it can be quite unpleasant - regardless of whether this state of arousal is enjoyable or not, we deal with it as we deal with most states of arousal: engaging in behaviors to make the state of arousal go away or end.

One way we can end or get rid of uncanniness is by perceiving the stimuli to be a joke and responding to it as we do to jokes (e.g., laughter if we find it funny, eye rolls if it’s not funny, etc.). If we don’t realize something is a joke (i.e., we don’t get it), we have to find other ways of dealing with uncanniness, such as by reaffirming our worldview (in fact, reaffirming our worldview is a common way we deal with unpleasant states of arousal - see Terror Management Theory as another example).

Proulx, Heine, and Voh (2010) performed a study on uncanniness with absurdist art, including Monty Python (seriously, sign me up for the line of research using Monty Python as the stimulus). In study 2 of their article, 2 groups of participants read a summary of Monty Python’s Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter, which was presented as either a joke or an adventure story; a 3rd group read a standard joke. Afterward, they read an unrelated court case and set bail; this was their opportunity to affirm their worldview. Participants set significantly higher bail in the “adventure story” condition than the other two conditions. The authors also found that among participants reading Biggles presented as an adventure story, those who found the story funnier (that is, figured out it was a joke even though it wasn’t presented as such) set lower bond; this effect was not observed in the other two groups. The effect was also not explained by mood, so even though reading something humorous makes people happy (if they get it), it’s not their happiness that explains the bail amount selected.

But the secret to understanding why some people appreciate parody while others do not probably lies in the part of the body that deals with arousal on a fairly regular basis.

Of course. Why? What did you think I was going to say?

Neuroscientists have explored what regions of the brain are activated when we encounter humor. In research on adults, they’ve found that humor results in activation in the part of the brain where the temporal (side), occipital (back), and parietal (top) lobes meet, known as the TOP junction. This part of the brain is used to resolve incongruencies - such as instances where unfamiliar elements are juxtaposed with the familiar (doesn’t this definition bear an uncanny resemblance to, well, the definition of uncanniness?). They also see activation in the mesolimbic system, responsible for processing of rewards (see previous blog post on reward pathways and addiction). That’s right - humor is rewarding, too.

So laugh it up, fuzzball.

~Thoughtfully yours,

For more laughs, also see Bad Lip Reading and Nice Peter.

Galloway, G. (2010). Individual differences in personal humor styles: Identification of prominent patterns and their associates. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 563-567.
Proulx, T., Heine, S.J., & Vohs, K.D. (2010). When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmation after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 817-829.
Strick, M., Holland, R.W., van Baaren, R.B., & van Knippenberg, A. (2009). Finding comfort in a joke: Consolatory effects of humor through cognitive distraction. Emotion, 9, 574-578.