Attractive Error web article


Attractive Error web article
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The Attractive Error
“An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of
truth which it contains.”
Henri-Frédéric Amiel,
Journal entry 12 November 1852
The misinformation that lies at the centre of humour possesses a vital quality. Unlike other erroneous data that can be more easily dismissed, this
particular strain proves attractive to the individual, who consequently runs
the risk of being taken in by its infected memetic basis. How does some
misinformation achieve this dangerous and beguiling quality, and what
factors influence its intensity?
The ubiquity of information in the human environment necessitates
the individual’s facility with its absorption and retention. As members of
this species are more reliant than any other for the inheritance of their
behavioural instruction on culturally rather than genetically transmitted
data, the desire to identify and pursue the sources of new memes represents
an advantageous adaptation. But along with the impulse to immerse
ourselves in the most recent information comes the difficulty of filtration,
since providing the mind with the apparatus to expand its resources
also leaves it open to infection by poor quality, potentially deleterious
incursions. According to information normalization theory, precisely the
same elements that enable some memes to become successful, rapidly
reproducing additions to our expansive world views are also responsible
for enticing us to take on board less useful forms of instruction. As Ernst
Mach commented in 1905, “Knowledge and error flow from the same
mental sources.” Some errors are attractive, and they are attractive for a
Amiel’s journal entry appears to refer to an abstract and perhaps
universal truth, a concept predictably at odds with this theory’s central
equation, which suggests the intensity of the humorous response can
be calculated by h = m x s, where m describes the extent of perceived
misinformation and s represents the individual’s susceptibility to taking
it seriously. However, if we tinker with his quotation a little, it can be
rephrased to read:
“Misinformation is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree to
which the individual perceives it to contain convincing elements.”
Although perhaps less immediately impressive as an insight, this statement
is now clearly concerned with subjective interpretation, and we have found
ourselves coinciding with Amiel’s proposition despite our coming to the
same conclusion from a quite different direction. Associated with our
bad data are bits that ring true, rendering us vulnerable to the errors it
presents. According to information normalization theory, humour exists
to compensate for this potentially misleading inconsistency in the fabric
of knowledge. Misinformation is always identified before the faculty
becomes active, and consequently we can not be at risk from a stimulus we
are finding amusing at that particular point in time. However, the pleasure
of the humorous response will only have been released because we have
already averted a potential danger by successfully dismissing as misleading
an instance of substandard data that nevertheless exhibits convincing
elements. The more convincing the misinformation we have succeeded
in seeing through, the greater the threat to informational integrity that has
been evaded, and this risk is commensurately rewarded by the humorous
response to encourage us to be on the lookout for similar pitfalls in the
future. On a different occasion, were we to prove not quite so circumspect
or perceptive, we could uncritically absorb the same error and suffer for
our gullibility as a result.1
But what exactly are these rogue elements that influence our
interpretation of information, and lead us to decide whether it is convincing
or otherwise? They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, other bits of information.
There is nothing revolutionary in this idea; there are many factors that
surround our apprehension of data, and beyond the basic physical apparatus
of sensory reception they are all composed of information of their own.
The only difference between these two types of data is one of attention.
By concentrating on any particular unit we perceive the first, while the
second provides it with a range of metadata: a context in which it sits
and associations which may or may not bias us towards or away from the
central detail they surround.2
The range of these factors is theoretically unlimited, barring any
epistemological constraints we may wish to impose regarding the sorts of
data we can possibly know or apprehend at the point of perceiving an event.
While they can be highly individualized, they are also an integral part of
the apprehension of data throughout daily life. Ideas, concepts, and prior
interpretations we associate with the unit in question will automatically
affect our judgement of it, but so will the manner in which it is presented,
and the agent or medium of its communication. With specific relation to
humour, we are interested in those associated factors that influence our
tendency to accept information as reliable, convincing, or worthy of our
attention. An attempt to perform a confidence trick on an individual who
has encountered it before is likely to fail, for example, because they possess
evidence associated with the stimulus which affects their judgement of
this later event, just as the presentation of the same words with different
emphases or an alternative delivery can markedly affect their credibility,
despite their syntax, order and component linguistic constructs remaining
entirely unchanged.
In order to apply the equation h = m x s, we are first going to need to be
able to identify these factors, and then record and rate them individually,
awarding each a positive or a negative value depending on whether
it appears to recommend or undermine the misinformation to which
it relates. Combining these results via a process of averaging will then
provide us with the value for s or susceptibility. This figure represents the
memetic value that is central to information normalization theory, since
our estimation of a unit of data’s appropriateness as a piece of replicable
information equates directly to our susceptibility to it as far as the faculty
of humour is concerned. However, the individualization of these factors
is a significant stymie to their identification. Memetic value may be based
on entirely different sources for two persons perceiving the same event,
and an association influencing how one interprets the misinformation may
be unique to their experience, precluding its recognition by the other. If
this is so, how can we possibly catalogue what they will turn out to be in
any stimulus? The simple answer is that we can not. Importantly for an
understanding of this theory, factors influencing memetic value are not an
inherent aspect of the event the amused individual perceives, otherwise we
would all remain susceptible to the same confidence tricks throughout our
lives, regardless of experience. Instead, they are fleeting products of the
subjective individual’s perception of that specific data at a single moment
in time. This does not mean they can not appear to emanate from the same
source as the misinformation in question, such as when a person’s tone
of voice influences our reception of their speech, but it does mean they
can only be defined by the individual’s internal reactions to events, not by
any intrinsic quality those events may be thought to possess. It is for this
reason, alongside differing views on what constitutes an error to begin
with, that events can not be interpreted as amusing or otherwise on any
objective basis.
Nonetheless, to make this apparently insurmountable edifice of
subjectivity a little more scalable, we can suggest certain categories of
influence over our perceptions of information that may assist us in the
identification of relevant memetic factors. In combination with a close
examination of the specific individual and the perceived event, this
framework provides a foundation for analysis at all levels. Regarding
cases in which we are unable to question an individual about their personal
responses and are forced to analyze an event from a generic, supposedly
independent stance, we must accept that our interpretations can not be
universal, and instead concentrate on the empathetic definition of forms
of misinformation that are frequently identified by adult human beings.
Having done so, we may begin to suggest those factors that will most
commonly influence the manner in which these errors are perceived.
Here it is becoming increasingly necessary to differentiate between
our various types of information and to delimit the application of their
relevant terminologies a little more accurately. First there is the instance
of misinformation that has been recognized and assessed by the faculty
for its degree of incorrectness. Anything that is viewed as being wrong
by the individual qualifies, but broadly speaking this could equate to
an error of knowledge such as the application of an incorrect name, a
poor behavioural model such as the wearing of inappropriate attire, or a
perceptual confusion in which one entity is mistaken for another. However,
this misinformation is also associated with an event, the humorous
occurrence which we might traditionally have considered the stimulus
to humour. This usually involves extra data that sets the scene for the
central, single instance of misinformation, although it may alternatively
provide a scaffold within which multiple instances are combined to form
a compound. Less frequently but not uncommonly, the event and the
misinformation will be recognized as identical in nature and extent due
to the absence of any immediate package in which the error or deception
occurs. For example, the misinformational element of a knock-knock
joke, the linguistic reinterpretation it suggests, arises within the wider
setting of the specific question-and-answer format by which it is known.
Likewise, a caricature presents a potentially humorous event in which the
individual may recognize various forms of misinformation relating to the
misrepresentation of dimensions. Yet in the case of mispronunciation, for
example, the misinformational element (the incorrect pronunciation of a
word) may be viewed to equate precisely to the event, which may feature
and require no further relevant data than the error itself. The uncertainty of
my language is intentional, since here we are once again within the realm
of subjective conscious perception, and the boundaries of attention will
be defined by the individual. Were we to find a peculiar accent amusing,
this would generally consist of multiple mispronunciations and unusual
intonations, leading to a humorous event (the accent as a whole) that
exhibits various misinformational elements. Whatever its constitution, the
event will most often be describable by the individual who is amused,
even if they are unable to offer any explanation as to why it should evoke
a response.
By contrast, in order to identify the factors of memetic value it is
important to be able to separate this often loosely defined event from
the precision of the stimulus, which is strictly recognized as the cause of
evocation, and equates to the summary of all the elements appearing within
the equation that contribute to the value h. It is therefore composed of both
an instance of misinformation and at least one positive rogue perception
that suggests we should take it seriously, and to this extent it is necessarily
individualized. All factors influencing the determination of memetic value
will automatically exist within the stimulus, whereas they may or may not
be judged to emanate from the event.
Despite all these variables and definitions, the assessment of memetic
value is instantaneous. It is not a process undertaken by the faculty of
humour itself, because there is no need for it to do so. The apprehension
of any event, amusing or otherwise, involves the immediate recollection
or perception of significant amounts of associated data as an automatic
by-product of consciousness, and this reaction will already include all the
information required for the faculty of humour to calculate its memetic
value. This is not to imply that human minds are permanently made up,
of course, since the next day, or even the next moment, the individual’s
impressions of the same unit may change for innumerable reasons, whether
directly related to it or otherwise. Moreover, despite the value of flexibility,
there are also significant informational advantages to reacting to events
with such snap decisions and instant interpretations. One of these is that the
determination of memetic value by the assessment of this impression data
provides a system for directed learning. Rather than being forced to assess
in detail every individual bit of information regardless of whether it may
turn out to be good or bad, categories of trusted sources, useful media and
interesting subjects can be established and new data instantaneously judged
according to its eligibility for inclusion. We are surrounded by information
vying for our attention, and these contextual recommendations help us to
concentrate on that which may prove valuable. As a consequence, memes
can be mined by the individual with little effort, and passed between peer
groups with similar requirements with astonishing speed.
Often, then, an apparently good bit of data will be supported by
encouraging signs of its trustworthiness, such as the reputation of the
agent of its communication or the possession of evidence from prior
experience that ideas of this type have proved useful in the past, and these
serve to confirm and reinforce the individual’s positive reactions to the
information, increasing their tendency to adopt it as a meme. Our problem,
the problem of the attractive error, arises when these promising contextual
factors appear in relation to an instance of misinformation. Now we find
positive memetic value in data we know to be flawed, so while we are safe
in this specific instance, its inconsistency is worrying. For a species that is
keen to learn, this highlights risks that must be addressed.
To assist the process of factor identification, I suggest four main
categories that influence the way we receive information, each of which is
potentially useful to the individual engaged in the process of differentiating
between that which may be worthy of their attention and that which may
not, but which could also prove dangerous if combined with poor data.3
The first category is novelty, the presence of which alerts the brain to
information we have not previously assessed, and which may, therefore,
justify a closer look. It represents one of the most valuable qualities in the
round of memetic exchange since the individual who fails to take notice
of new data may overlook important developments and find themselves
at a disadvantage as a result. With such a large proportion of behavioural
instruction inherited culturally and throughout the human lifespan,
allowing one’s conspecifics to get ahead in the information stakes can
seriously alter one’s chances of success as a mate and a peer. Conversely,
as the individual grows accustomed to tools, concepts and models of
behaviour, it is no longer necessary to pay them attention equivalent to
that awarded during the earliest stages of exposure, and the individual may
even become disadvantaged by spending too much time on that which
has become outmoded. When first encountering a humorous event such
as a particular line in a comedy, its novelty value may be high (although
knowledge of generically similar material may militate against this), but
as familiarity increases with exposure, the source event may no longer
provide any data the individual considers unabsorbed by memory. Further
exposure may cease to be attractive, and we may even become bored and
grow to dislike what used to amuse us. Objective novelty is not a factor
here, and so a prolonged period of absence from the event may once more
lead to its achieving higher novelty values as the individual becomes
gradually less acquainted with its content due to the infidelity of memory.
Further, the complexity of different events and the stimuli apprehended by
the faculty will inevitably mean that some forms and instances of humour
retain their impact on this basis for significantly longer than others; yet this
is, of course, entirely dependent on the individual’s reactions.
The second category is evidence. The individual’s experience and
knowledge will directly affect the manner in which they view the
information received. Along with this record of past performance (such
as first-hand knowledge that the data is untrustworthy), there may be
evidence of or from the immediate event that makes the individual more
or less likely to take it seriously (such as a convincing tone of voice
supporting a lie, or the representative accuracy we considered in relation
to the caricature from my earlier article An Introduction To Information
Normalization Theory, which provided the portrait with varying degrees
of informational validity). Any such bits of metadata provide an evidential
basis to support or deny the claims of the misinformation, and may prove
numerous within any single event.
One frequent and important form of immediate evidence is the
individual’s witness to the event’s occurrence, and this is especially true
where the misinformation relates to a poor behavioural model. Consider a
person who acts in a manner viewed as outrageous in the same room as an
observing individual. Here, witnessing the event provides it with memetic
weight since it is evidentially a model of behaviour currently adopted by
at least one other human being, and this status of memetic respectability
means the individual may need to reassess their stance and confirm whether
or not to take it seriously as a valuable model for themselves, regardless
of how misinformational it might otherwise appear. This bias of evidence
towards the individual’s immediate and personal perceptions is balanced
to some extent by the effects of peers. The most obvious vehicle for the
broadcasting of memetic values is through the signal of laughter, and
consequently an individual may begin to find something more amusing if
a convincing number of people they respect display their appreciation of
it first. Evidence in the form of preconceived notions of how amusing a
stimulus will turn out to prove may also increase or decrease its memetic
value, regardless of its content, on this basis.
This second category therefore exerts a significant influence over the
misinformation’s credibility, which may prove central to some forms of
humour. It should be noted that the presence of credibility as a factor in
the determination of memetic values does not mean we must be taken in
by the misinformation of the event, only that we should recognize that it
has some degree of evidential reliability. Were we to be taken in, there
would be no humour. However, the process of apprehension may involve
the recognition of the error of prior assumptions, and to this extent being
duped is sometimes an integral preliminary to rectification and associated
evocation. In this manner, the immediate evidence of my physical
movements may lead you to believe I am about to turn one way, when
in fact I turn the other, thus creating a deception that stimulates you to
revise your perceptions. Even so, while it is common due to the nature
of deception, the process of wrong-footing the individual’s mind is not
a necessary condition of humour. Just as I may play a practical joke that
deceives you into behaving in a poor behavioural model and then laugh at
your ignorance of the error with my fellow perpetrators, I may also amuse
you by simply raising my eyebrows in a particular manner or being inept
with my calculator. All of these reveal misinformation to the observing
party, but in none of these cases is the individual who laughs one who has
been deceived into believing the outcome will turn in one direction when
it then proceeds in another. There may be many different varieties of poor
behavioural model and the rejection of new erroneous data involved in the
amusement evoked by my eyebrow display, but can we really claim that
its formation wrong-foots the audience? It is perhaps only easy to do so if
we suggest that all data held by the individual is instantly wrong-footed
by anything that does not coincide with it, but I find this difficult to justify.
In information normalization theory, the presence of any level of memetic
value that may suggest the individual should take this misinformation
seriously is sufficient to evoke a response, and we can reject the idea that
humour arises exclusively from the transition of data between the two
states of the believable and the debunked.
The third category is attraction, used here specifically to refer to
elements that draw us towards or turn us away from the event in question.
These may include desire relating to its occurrence (did we want this to
happen?), an attraction to its subject matter (such as sex), or towards the
agent or medium of its communication (the person telling a joke, for
example, or the style of its representation). Because I find you attractive,
I am likely to award your information a greater than usual degree of
memetic value. The attraction or repulsion caused by an event plays a
significant part in the often dichotomous responses between the victim and
the perpetrator during practical jokes and humiliation humour, as we will
examine shortly, and in the initially difficult process of learning to laugh
at oneself.
The fourth and final category is relevance. What are the misinformation
and its surrounding event about? The more we perceive the subject matter
to be relevant to ourselves, the more likely we are to want to take greater
notice of it. The individual decides what is valuable to their existence,
rightly or wrongly, and that which is deemed irrelevant is of little interest.
The error itself may be relevant, or the event, or the category of activity
into which we deem either to fall. As a consequence, interpretations of
relevance rely upon the analyst exerting a level of discretion. Since it
is possible to redefine any event as part of a larger class until there is
only one category including all units, which would necessarily imply that
all things were relevant to all persons, and because any event is likely
to involve elements familiar to the vast majority of human beings (most
individuals have eaten vegetables or played with a ball, for example), a
realistic assessment of items that would be sufficiently relevant to exert an
influence over the memetic value must be made. However, some scenarios
remain relevant to large proportions of the population throughout their lives
(such as the potential for falling over), and consequently a balance needs
to be struck between redundant generality that is unlikely to contribute to
the individual’s immediate impression data and the temptation to overlook
relatively common but potentially influential perceptions.
Listed in this order, the four categories produce a simple mnemonic
that may prove useful to students first applying information normalization
theory: Novelty, Evidence, Attraction, Relevance, reminding us how near
to the event the factors of memetic determination appear to the individual,
whether they emanate from immediate circumstances or ancient memories.
This somewhat workaday categorization may provide some degree of
guidance for those attempting to analyze an individual’s apparently
bizarre or inexplicable responses. At least one factor must be present
to produce a stimulus, but multiples from any or all of these categories
are more common according to my experience of analysis. However,
just because an event is new or relevant to the individual does not mean
this will necessarily be apparent in their impression data. To complicate
matters, some analyses will require us to take into account hidden factors,
which, although registering a negative reading individually, may still have
contributed towards the production of a positive memetic value. These
may initially appear irrelevant, but their reduction of the final reward is
noteworthy, and could become crucial to analysis where responses are
borderline or apparently erratic. If it appears at this stage that the system
is becoming a little convoluted, it should be remembered that what is
complex and perhaps irksome in our theorizing is of course effortless
and instantaneous to the faculty, which is concerned only with the overall
impression it receives from the conscious mind.
As the range of these factors illustrates, it is clearly possible to award
an event a degree of positive memetic value without wishing to engage
in the same misinformation oneself. Evidence that supports a poor
behavioural model increases its attraction as a unit of data but does not
necessarily mean we yearn to make the same mistake, and more often than
not we will be quite averse to doing so. Yet the infected data has proposed
grounds for its adoption by the mind, grounds which in themselves are
attractive as commendatory metadata. Our defence is to intervene to curtail
negotiations and dismiss the potential memetic infection, for which we are
appropriately rewarded with the humorous response.
Neither should the breadth of these factors’ contextuality be overlooked.
The individual does not have to be attracted to the nature of the error
itself, for example, to be attracted to its communicator. Similarly, the
misinformation may not be new, but the wider context or manner in which
it is presented may still strike us as original, leading to its association with
a positive memetic value on this basis. Should we wish to define for the
purposes of analysis a boundary for these references and associations we
will be disappointed, since they extend to whatever affects the individual’s
immediate impression of the misinformation and its event. It is also
possible that different individuals will attach varying levels of importance
to these four broad categories or elements thereof. One person may award
supportive evidence especial weight in their determination of values,
whereas another may find novelty far more impressive, contributing to a
divergence of responses to overtly similar information.
It has often been suggested by commentators on formal humour that the
same material may be considered amusing in the hands of one performer
but fall like a lead balloon when delivered by another. Presuming for a
moment that the misinformation presented remains unchanged, and
that the observing individual perceives precisely the same data on two
occasions (although in practice it is likely that the perception of micro
errors will affect the sum impression of an act’s amusement value, and
that these will vary from one presentation to the next), the aspect of the
performance which alters in degree is the memetic value we award the
event in which the substandard data occurs. We may even know the routine
intimately and have been unimpressed by it on previous occasions, yet here
its presentation by a different performer manages to evoke a response in
spite of ourselves. This time the misinformation seems more convincing,
and we are closer to being taken in by it. The details of the intonation are
more supportive to the lie, and we find the communicator more appealing
and pay greater attention to their words, which appear of an increased
relevance to us due to our shared interests. On top of this, the performer’s
gesticulations and facial expressions conspire to inform us evidentially
that this time the message is worth a look, and their original delivery
means that even these worn-out lines seem novel. Some comedians have
specialized in performing essentially defunct routines in ways designed to
engage a particular audience, with perhaps one of the best known examples
in the United Kingdom being Tommy Cooper. The largely failed attempts
at conjuring of this much-loved entertainer exuded error in combination
with well-known jokes delivered with an inimitable style that, for many
individuals, rejuvenated them. Notably, an important element of his
delivery was his tendency to laugh at his own lines, despite this long being
considered a failing in a comedian. However, as others have also found to
their benefit (including stand-up acts such as Billy Connolly), provided
the laughter appears directed towards the fallibility of themselves or those
they criticize rather than their own funniness, it can reinforce the memetic
value the audience perceives within the event.
It is inevitable, however, that the perception of impression data will not
always produce a result above the neutral figure of zero for the variable
s. The potentially divisive nature of humour, being founded on error and
deception as it is, soon comes to light when the results turn negative. Now
the cons and mistakes are no longer attractive, and harmful misinformation
is appropriately allied with unappealing memetic factors. Its status as poor
data remains unquestioned, and since we are not drawn to it we are not
susceptible to its errors, and need not be rewarded for avoiding it. Yet the
assessment is subjective, and just as one individual may be registering a
negative memetic value, another may be processing the misinformation
with the opposite reaction. In some forms of humour this imbalance occurs
as a natural tendency due to the respective perspectives of the multiple
parties involved. Humiliation humour is perhaps the prime example, in
which a subservient individual is exposed to ridicule, usually via their
enforced participation in some form of action they would otherwise wish
to avoid.
Consider a typical scenario in which a single perpetrator trips up a
less confident individual by stepping on their heels from behind, forcing
them to exhibit an error. The misinformational elements may be defined
depending on the details as you imagine them, but exist generically within
the category of falling over or perhaps being physically incompetent.
These elements remain largely the same for both parties (although there
may be further poor behavioural models perceived by the perpetrator, such
as the victim’s weakness or low social standing), yet there is a distinct
discrepancy of assessment when it comes to the memetic value of the
perceived event. For the victim, this behaviour is decidedly unattractive,
exposing them as it does to ridicule as they commit an undesirable error,
and confirming their subservience to the dominance of the perpetrator.
There may be further negative factors concerning novelty and originality if
this instance constitutes one part of a significantly longer pattern, and there
is little immediate evidence to suggest that their actions represent a positive
way to behave since they are alone in falling over in the vicinity. All in all,
these are good grounds for finding the event tiresome, unappealing or even
For the perpetrator, however, the stimulus is an entirely different
matter, despite being founded on the same process of the victim’s falling
over. From this point of view, there are numerous factors that enable the
misinformation to be perceived in a positive light. First, the perpetrator
finds the error’s occurrence attractive, since this is the outcome they
are attempting to effect. In most cases of genuine humiliation they will
usually dislike the victim and their exposure to ridicule (and even pain)
is therefore viewed as a successful eventuality. Its observation reinforces
the dynamics of their relationship and the balance of power between them,
and the perception of superiority elicited by the event may also form a
contributory factor to memetic valuation. Further, beyond any issue of
the pleasure of the process of humiliation, the perpetrator has effectively
instructed his own instance of slapstick, directing the victim to produce an
error one might find amusing in another regardless of any power games
occurring beneath the surface. In this instance, the immediate evidence
of falling over as a currently active model of behaviour is combined with
the wide-ranging relevance of the human experience of walking upright,
its underlying precariousness, and the perpetual risk to the individual of
failing in this supposedly simple task.
The same basic principles apply whether we imagine our scenario to
involve tripping someone up, enforcing their public nudity, making a fat or
unfit person run, or performing wet willies and wedgies on the physically or
socially inferior. However, while the imbalance is notable, the perpetrator
does not get it all their own way. Apparently confirming advice meted
out down the centuries, the controlled reaction of the victim may serve
to cap the humorous enjoyment of the perpetrator and their audience. By
appearing unaffected by the process to which they are subjected, the victim
may fail to exhibit the symptoms of exposure to ridicule the perpetrator is
keen to observe in their response. This reduction in the effectiveness of
their actions reveals a less obvious disparity in the balance of power, and
may significantly limit the memetic value of the event and consequently
the motivation for further assaults.
With a not dissimilar foundation to the principles of humiliation
humour, laughing at one’s own errors requires a balance of perceptions
usually absent in childhood and often slow to develop thereafter, if it does
at all. Firstly, the individual must be willing to acknowledge that they have
indeed exhibited misinformational behaviour or knowledge. There is no
matter on which there is universal agreement, however, and it becomes
impossible to state categorically that someone has exhibited an error when
we are concerned with poor behavioural models. We may decide within
our peer groups and from our personal philosophical stances that certain
activity is incorrect, whether it be trivial (concerning my sister’s choice of
décor) or more serious (regarding the belief in the existence of a god) yet we
must be careful not to presume that an individual not engaged in laughing
at themselves is unresponsive for any other reason than the non-existence
of an error according to their perception of the event. Our argument is
a little less inconclusive when we consider knowledge, for individuals
are clearly able to recognize their own fallibility in more factually
based matters yet still not laugh when others find their mistakes highly
amusing. Here the two parties diverge once more in their assessment of
memetic value, with the observer able to perceive the immediate evidence
of the occurrence, potentially alongside an attraction to the failure of a
competitor and degrees of novelty and relevance. For the individual at
the helm, however, the error is significantly different, perhaps leading
to unappealing ramifications in their position in society or at work, to
their exposure to ridicule from peers, or to the onset of self-doubt. These
damaging memetic factors make it much clearer that there is nothing to be
attracted to here; the error is considered entirely negative and consequently
no humour occurs. However, by attempting to overlook or discount this
loss of face some individuals become able to disable its memetic impact,
and discover that learning to laugh at themselves in turn helps to reduce
the burden of ridicule they receive from others, as well as providing a
minor fillip of enjoyment during an unpleasant event. By viewing the
misinformation as a source of humour it develops a higher memetic rating
due to its entertainment value, and by interpreting the process of laughing
at themselves as a reflection of maturity and equanimity, each instance can
be added to the burgeoning stock of past evidence that such events are not
so harmful after all.4
As I suggested earlier, the individual’s impression data may change as
circumstances dictate. When new information in the event comes to light,
its continued appropriateness for inclusion in positive memetic territory
will be reassessed. Under certain conditions this process produces sudden
reversals that can be seen as a direct result of the over-extension of the
stimulus, stretching its credibility or the individual’s emotional tolerance
to breaking point, and thereby producing a sudden contraction of value in
what I refer to as the memetic boomerang. Consider the satirical depiction
of a political state. The country to which the comedian refers is clearly
recognizable to you beneath his overblown portrait designed to lampoon
its beliefs and actions. For our equation, the relevant misinformation exists
primarily in his exaggerations, but also in the underlying poor behavioural
model they present, brought to your attention by his depiction. You laugh,
and consequently for his next audience he exaggerates it further, hoping to
capitalize on the source of amusement. They laugh more, and the following
night he raises the stakes again, until the results appear ever-increasing.
However, on the final night he goes for broke, and pushes the act too far.
The exaggerations have increased to the point where his depiction no
longer strikes the audience as evidentially accurate to the country he is
satirizing. The misinformation of exaggeration becomes detached from the
political state requiring lampooning, and the memetic value of the stimulus
contracts with the inevitable conclusion that the satire falls flat. As with any
other aspect of evocation, the boomerang is individualized. For some, who
favour subtlety of depiction in their entertainment, it may arise commonly;
for others, who favour fantasy and outlandish portraiture, it may hardly
ever occur. It has a childish analogue, arising commonly as the excitement
of group activity spirals upwards and the memetic value rises too, until the
misinformation becomes stretched too far, and it all ends in tears.
Returning to the bully for a moment, imagine now that the victim is
tripped up as usual the next day, but that when she falls she cracks her head
open and dies. This time there may be factors adding significant negative
weighting to the event that could affect the perpetrator’s impression data
of their actions. They may realize that they are likely to find themselves
in serious trouble, or feel genuine guilt for what they have done. Also,
evidence may be perceived that falling over in the style of the victim
is clearly not a good idea due to its consequences, providing it with a
profoundly negative interpretation that would recommend its unequivocal
rejection as a behavioural model for the perpetrator or any other observer.
However, there seems no reason to presume that the common reduction
of the humorous response in such situations is an automatic reaction in all
individuals. To do so presupposes that humour exists only above a certain
threshold of inconsequentiality and that all impression data is identical for
all individuals perceiving certain circumstances. Further, it implies that we
can identify a range of definable events that are intrinsically not amusing
given human physiology, culture, and psychology in their present states.
Just as I am unwilling to accept that any error possesses elements that render
it inherently funny, neither can I accept that there is any event that can not
lead to humour, provided the individual does not absorb impression data
that negatively affects their memetic assessment. Moralists may deplore
the views that enable individuals to muster positive values from occasions
such as the death of our victim, and those who are upset may find the sound
of laughter at these times offensive and insensitive, but to declare that any
data can not be found amusing by someone, regardless of its nature, is to
confuse the faculty of humour with the philosophy of ethics.
Now consider a different scenario. Instead of being tripped up each
morning, our victim starts to take the bus and finds she shares the second
leg of her journey with a colleague. Having escaped her daily humiliation,
she is now pleasantly entertained by a satirical observation or amusing
anecdote. This is usually most welcome, but on one particular morning
she has received some bad news and the entertainment fails to evoke a
humorous response. Disappointed by her reaction and a little unsure of
herself, the next day the colleague repeats the same material as closely as
possible. This time the response is forthcoming, and what failed to hit the
mark one day is successful the next.
It is impossible to address the question of negative memetic value
without a brief consideration of the wider influences of emotional biases
and neurophysiological balances suggested by this situation. Emotions
clearly affect one another, boosting or reducing the impact of those
with which they coincide, and multiple inputs can produce a cocktail of
confused or indeterminate results. Mild happiness may be bolstered by the
congratulatory effects of short-term achievement, just as elation may have
its edge taken off by the experience of minor pain. However, in The Faculty
of Adaptability I suggested that this fight is not a fair one. The hypothesis
runs that the experience of negative emotions is more important to survival
on an immediate basis than the enjoyment of rewards. Fear, pain, anger or
depression may be caused directly by dangerous or difficult circumstances
that could have a severe impact on an individual’s chances of living, and
are experienced for the most part during the time that the threat is perceived
to be present. Such punitive restraints curb the individual’s participation
in the negative event, whereas the rewards of happiness, the humorous
response, sexual gratification and all other naturally occurring internal
pleasures, encourage the repetition of similar behaviour in the future. The
former may therefore prolong the organism’s life immediately, whereas
the latter, although still important, serve only to improve its prospects in
the future, and may be cut short with little consequence. Indeed, if rewards
are not cut short by the arrival of a threat to survival, they may not only
prove a waste of resources but also contribute to any ensuing harm the
individual suffers by distracting them from the more important task at
hand. It is for this reason that I refer to the hypothesis as the futility of
dying happy. If its central suggestion is correct, we should expect restraints
such as fear or pain to dominate the emotional cauldron and important
issues of survival to override the better things in life for which we are
already being congratulated. My laughter may be valuable as a bribe to
mould my behaviour in the future, but it becomes worthless if that future
ceases to exist.
This effect possesses no direct relation to the mechanism of humour
as this theory sees it, but appears to in several ways. The rewards of the
response are only one example of various pleasures that are enjoyed by
human physiology and therefore overridden in a similar manner. Their
curtailment may occur independently of the faculty of humour’s activity
or at the same time as either positive or negative memetic values are
registered, and negative memetic value may be assessed without the input
of the futility of dying happy. Despite this independence, it may appear that
we have now identified a reason to define certain events as being unable to
evoke a response due to their threatening nature and tendency to stimulate
an emotional override. Yet I still do not consider this to be plausible. First,
not all individuals react to danger in the same way, since all occurrences
are only dangerous according to the individual’s personal assessment. A
lion in the living room would justifiably petrify many of us, while to tamers
and game wardens it may prove unmoving, and for a few individuals it
would be commonplace. Further, our example of the victim dying as a
result of tomfoolery would, I presume, not be considered an unfit stimulus
for humour by some commentators purely because the perpetrator realizes
his freedom is in jeopardy as a result of it, so we can discount his point of
view and personal reactions from our argument. Instead, such criticisms
would arise out of an observer’s altruistic impulse to sympathize with the
dead girl and her mourners, regardless of whether they had witnessed the
event or not. The state of altruism is, I would suggest, highly subjective,
possibly because it is largely learnt behaviour. As a consequence, it will
exert differing degrees of influence from person to person, and to presume
its genuine arousal at the same point for every individual is to exaggerate
the similarities across the spectrum of moral perspectives.
The entertainment of the bus journey fails to evoke a response on a
specific day entirely due to this emotional override, which proceeds to
dissipate overnight until it is absent again the following morning, allowing
humour to occur once more from a largely unchanged event. When
negative memetic value is registered simultaneously with this effect,
the result may appear no different from a situation in which the override
occurs in isolation. I may kick you and find it amusing despite the fact that
you begin to cry, for example. The pain and humiliation stimulate your
negative emotional reaction, and you are decidedly unamused because of
both the futility of dying happy and the absence of positive memetic value
in the event. However, on a different occasion I may kick you without your
becoming upset, yet you still fail to find it amusing due to the negative
memetic value in your impression data. Consider, then, what would occur
if one person kicked you in the shin while another told you a joke. The
positive memetic value would register with the faculty of humour, but there
would still be scope for the response to be overridden by your simultaneous
emotional reaction to the less attractive occurrence. Importantly here we
must remember to consider the extent to which the conscious perception of
the individual identifies and defines the boundaries of a single event, since
if both occurrences were to become associated as one, the results could
turn out differently.
It may appear at this point that we are unnecessarily duplicating inputs
into the system. Why will the futility of dying happy not help us to explain
both the failure of the victim to laugh during her humiliation and her
inability to find the anecdote amusing because she has other things on her
mind? We could indeed suggest a system for humour on this basis, but
unfortunately it would only work for things that were not funny. Without
the positive memetic value that occurs in other circumstances, no humour
can be produced by the system as information normalization theory
sees it at all. Further, to propose that the factors influencing the result of
memetic assessment can only ever reflect positives suggests a faculty that
would inevitably prove unrepresentative of the individual’s impressions
of information on a regular and repeated basis. Negative memetic values
must therefore be registrable as long as memetic value is considered to
exist. Alternatively, we could dispose with the hypothesis of the futility of
dying happy, and stick with memetic value alone. While this is tenable for
instances of humour and remains consistent with the central equation of
our theory, it fails to address the relationship between positive and negative
chemicals that are stimulated by other emotional rewards and restraints,
such as happiness, anger, and depression.
If it is true that the faculty of humour exists to encourage the integrity of
data as information normalization theory suggests, it is inevitable that we
find ourselves repeatedly circling subjectivity during our explanations. A
consequence and benefit of consciousness is the variability of information,
and it is the protection of this freedom to learn and develop, rather than
the maintenance and repair of an immutable set of instructions, that is the
business of humour. Even the constraints of our equation do not enable us
to define what is and is not amusing, nor how and when any individual will
be in the mood to be impressed by any particular stimulus. The universality
of the faculty’s structure says nothing about the misinformation that will
be addressed by it, and the perception of memetic value is more subjective
still, serving only to reinforce the impossibility of concepts such as
universal humour. Yet some activities do indeed appear to arise in comedy
with a surprising regularity, as if they are more attractive as errors than
their competitors. With or without an understanding of theories of humour,
comedians and performers learn quickly by trial and error what best to
supply to their audiences, homing in on the most appropriate and evocative
misinformation.5 While this is not an illusion, it is not because any single
stimulus is inherently amusing, unamusing, or more or less amusing than
any other. Rather, some errors remain prevalent among many individuals,
and basic factors influencing memetic values are frequently shared
between sizeable sectors of the population due to similarities in education,
background and culture. It is the existence of shared memetic values that
creates peer groups to begin with, so we should hardly be surprised at
the influence they exert over the selection of comedic entertainment also,
considering the role those values play in the determination of the faculty’s
No humour can be guaranteed to be amusing to any individual, and even
if information normalization theory is correct in its depiction of the faculty’s
apparatus, this uncertainty will remain. A model of humour founded
on a simple equation might suggest the possibility of production lines
manufacturing undeniably amusing events, but any such ideas are readily
quashed by the intense individualization of memetic values. However,
given a degree of sensitivity to the individual and their perceptions, we
may indeed begin to suggest an error for their rejection, and do our best to
make its presentation sufficiently attractive to their necessarily open but
necessarily defensive minds.
1 It is presumed that the reader possesses an elementary understanding of the theory
during this article. For a more general explanation of its principles, see An Introduction To
Information Normalization Theory.
2 Readers of pattern recognition theory should note that the special definition of units
and contexts as that theory presents them are not relevant here. There are a number of
echoes between the two approaches due to their calculated opposition on the same subject
and their shared authorship. The theories are briefly compared and contrasted in the
article Correction Versus Creativity, available at
3 Provided the determinants of memetic value are identified it is not important that these
categories are employed precisely as defined here during analysis. However, I highly
recommend the use of some form of classification due to the sheer variety of potential
4 I have presumed for the purposes of this argument that learning to laugh at oneself is a
process initiated wilfully, although it may of course develop without conscious intent.
5 A more detailed examination of how multiple individuals appear to be able to share the
‘same’ sense of humour, despite this theory’s insistence that all responses are the result of
subjective perception, is available in the full-length book The Attractive Error.
Humour’s role in the war against infected memes
Alastair Clarke
The full-length publication The Attractive
Error is due for release by Pyrrhic House,
and will be available in hardback and e-book
versions. To pre-order a copy or for further
information visit
This article published by Dot Net Press
Copyright Alastair Clarke 2011
With the permission of
Pyrrhic House
To Contact The Author E-mail
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