The Complexity of Jokes Is Limited by Cognitive Constraints on Mentalizing

Abstract

Although laughter is probably of deep evolutionary origin, the telling of jokes, being language-based, is likely to be of more recent origin within the human lineage. In language-based communication, speaker and listener are engaged in a process of mutually understanding each other’s intentions (mindstates), with a conversation minimally requiring three orders of intentionality. Mentalizing is cognitively more demanding than non-mentalizing cognition, and there is a well-attested limit at five orders in the levels of intentionality at which normal adult humans can work. Verbal jokes commonly involve commentary on the mindstates of third parties, and each such mindstate adds an additional level of intentionality and its corresponding cognitive load. We determined the number of mentalizing levels in a sample of jokes told by well-known professional comedians and show that most jokes involve either three or five orders of intentionality on the part of the comedian, depending on whether or not the joke involves other individuals’ mindstates. Within this limit there is a positive correlation between increasing levels of intentionality and subjective ratings of how funny the jokes are. The quality of jokes appears to peak when they include five or six levels of intentionality, which suggests that audiences appreciate higher mentalizing complexity whilst working within their natural cognitive constraints.

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Notes

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    We contacted the website authors for more information about these ratings but received no reply.

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Acknowledgments

The research was supported by European Research Council Advanced Investigator grant #295663 to RD, and by the British Academy Centenary Research Project.

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Correspondence to R. I. M. Dunbar.

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Dunbar, R.I.M., Launay, J. & Curry, O. The Complexity of Jokes Is Limited by Cognitive Constraints on Mentalizing. Hum Nat 27, 130–140 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-015-9251-6

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Keywords

  • Mentalizing
  • Jokes
  • Intentionality
  • Cognitive demand
  • Mindstates