Jul 06

The Science of Humor: “Ha!” by Scott Weems

Although the science of humor has always held special appeal to me, much of the research is dry. Not that it’s supposed to be funny, but come on.

But the book Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why (2014) by cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, PhD, is among the better resources.

An excerpt from the review by Publishers Weekly:

Weems examines various categories of humor and what they say about human thought and behavior, including ‘gallows humor,’ ‘lawyer jokes,’ and meta-humor. He tackles the ‘Are women less funny than men?’ controversy, notes a study that revealed the tangible negative impact of sexist jokes, outlines personality traits that supposedly contribute to a person’s funniness, ponders why computers can’t master humor, and investigates how comedic timing operates.

More science of humor from Kirkus Reviews:

Both humor and problem-solving require insight, creativity, psychological health and intelligence; in fact, writes Weems, ‘the smarter we are, the more likely we are to share a good joke.’ Surprise is essential in humor. We laugh at a story that abruptly reveals an incongruity, but this requires a mature brain with vast experience of the world and one that works obsessively to find patterns in the messy, ambiguous information that bombards it. Young children and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders often cannot tell a joke from a lie.

A GoodReads reviewer states some “fun conclusions” in Ha! that he appreciated:

…Common sense walks, humor dances…A humorous attitude signifies an engaged mind…People who are quick to laugh are quick to forget stressful experiences…Because the human brain can hold two or more opposing ideas at the same, it often resolves the apparent conflicts with humor, which recognizes the incongruities…Humor is a psychological coping mechanism for a life full of absurdities and ambiguities.

British researcher Richard Wiseman, Weems tells us, analyzed the responses of tons of people to many different examples of humor. Weems explains some results (The Huffington Post):

Of the thousands of jokes analyzed in Wiseman’s study, the ones rated highest by everybody included some shock or surprise, but not so much that they became the centerpiece of the joke. More important was a sense of false expectations being overturned. My personal favorite involved two ducks sitting on a pond. One of the ducks says, ‘Quack.’ The other quickly responds, ‘I was going to say that!’ It’s hard to be offended by that.

What did Wiseman’s science determine was the funniest joke in the world? (Keep in mind that not everyone will agree.)

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He’s not breathing and his eyes are glazed, so his friend calls 911. ‘My friend is dead! What should I do?’ The operator replies, ‘Calm down, sir. I can help. First make sure that he’s dead.’ There’s a silence, then a loud bang. Back on the phone, the guy says, ‘Ok, now what?’

What makes you a funny person? States Weems: “When we refer to someone as having a humorous personality, what we mean is that this person sees the ambiguity, confusion, and strife inherent in life and turns them into pleasure.”

Jun 28

Guns and Mental Illness: The True Relationship

If the current debate about gun violence and gun safety leads to increasing access to mental health services, I’m all for it. However, in the process we have to be very careful not to unfairly malign “the mentally ill”—or to overgeneralize about any designated group of people—regarding their propensity for violence. Just what is the true relationship between guns and mental illness?

In his post “Guns and Mental Health” psychiatrist Gordon Livingston reported the relevant statistics: “Of the total number of gun deaths in this country, around 30,000 a year, the majority are not the result of mental illness, but of ordinary human emotions like anger, hate, greed, and despair. In fact, about half of all shootings are suicides.”

Violence in general is more likely to occur when substance abuse is involved. Addictions expert Adi Jaffe states, for example: “(A)lcohol is involved in more than 50% of violent crimes and about 75% of partner violence” (Psychology Today).

Illegal drugs are implicated as well, of course. And then there are the legal ones—including sleep aids, amphetamines used for ADD, and antidepressants—that have been too often linked to violence.

Still, why do some turn to violence while others don’t? Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni points out in a Scientific American article that the mechanism that turns anger into violence is lack of cognitive control, or what we usually call self-control. Some people, for various reasons, don’t develop this adequately. Others may lose it under certain circumstances.

What, then, is the actual deal with guns and mental illness? How do we go about identifying those most at risk for violent behavior, particularly the gun kind? It’s not easy, Dr. Livingston said:

The only real predictor of future violence in anyone turns out to be a past history of violent behavior. Absent this, professionals are little better than the average citizen at identifying those likely to harm others. Many people report violent fantasies (remember your reaction to the last person to cut you off in traffic); few act on them.

The American Psychological Association outlines three strategies, though, that can work to prevent gun violence:

  1. On the individual level. “Although it is important to recognize that most people suffering from a mental illness are not dangerous, for those persons at risk for violence due to mental illness, suicidal thoughts, or feelings of desperation, mental health treatment can often prevent gun violence.”
  2. On the community level. “Prevention of violence occurs along a continuum that begins in early childhood with programs to help parents raise emotionally healthy children and ends with efforts to identify and intervene with troubled individuals who are threatening violence.”
  3. Effective policies. “Firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes, and individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others — have been shown to reduce violence.”
Jun 22

Sarah Kendzior Continues to Warn of a Gaslit Nation

We have a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government. Sarah Kendzior

Expert in authoritarianism Sarah Kendzior, author of The View from Flyover Country (2018) and Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020) will have a new book coming out in September. It’s called They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent.

Also co-host of the popular podcast “Gaslit Nation,” Sarah Kendzior is an important voice regarding not only the sociopolitical causes and effects of Trumpism but also the related psychology. Below are quotes from each book that I find particularly pertinent for Minding Therapy readers.

I. Flyover Country

It is easy, when people feel frightened and abandoned, for a demagogue to exploit those feelings of despair for political gain. It is easy for that demagogue to translate fear into fanaticism, to shift extremism into the mainstream and market it under the guise of populism. By the time buyer’s remorse hits, a new and more brutal political culture has arisen. A gaslit nation becomes engulfed in flames.

When survival is touted as an aspiration, sacrifice becomes a virtue. But a hero is not a person who suffers. A suffering person is a person who suffers.

Paranoia is aggression masked as defense. It was paranoia (and hubris, and greed) that caused the run-up to the Iraq War; it is paranoia that leads to thousands of innocent Muslims being profiled in New York; it is paranoia that led to Trayvon Martin being shot to death on the street. In Congress, paranoia is less a style than a sickness, employed less with flourish than with fear. Paranoia is the refusal to recognize others except as filtered through ourselves—and how do Americans see themselves? Afraid, afraid, afraid.

II. Hiding in Plain Sight

“Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear,” scholar of fascism Hannah Arendt wrote after the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The nightmares I had been fending off had come home in the form of the Trump administration: a white supremacist kleptocracy linked to a transnational crime syndicate, using digital media to manipulate reality and destroy privacy, led by a sociopathic nuke-fetishist, backed by apocalyptic fanatics preying on the weakest and most vulnerable as feckless and complicit officials fail to protect them.

Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.

Once an autocrat gets into office, it is very hard to get them out. They will disregard term limits, they will purge the agencies that enforce accountability, they will rewrite the law so that they are no longer breaking it. They will take your money, they will steal your freedom, and if they are clever, they will eliminate any structural protections you had before the majority realizes the extent of the damage.

“No one saw it coming,” but what they mean is that they consider the people who saw it coming to be no one. The category of “no one” includes the people smeared by Trump in his propaganda: immigrants, black Americans, Muslim Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, LGBT Americans, disabled Americans, and others long maligned and marginalized—groups for whom legally sanctioned American autocracy was not an unfathomable horror, but a personal backstory.

Jun 15

Lies and More Lies: Who to Believe? Try These Resources

Lies and more lies. Politics, am I right? Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (2012), has stated, “It turns out that people want their politicians to lie to them — people view politics as a means to an end, and if they care about the ends, they’re willing for the means to be a little bit more crooked” (Jesse Singal, The Cut).

But it’s not just about politics. Ariely also believes that virtually everyone lies. Yael Melamede‘s 2015 documentary (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, which featured Ariely’s research and insights, drew this review headline from Anna Pulley, Village Voice: “Dishonesty Reminds Us That Our Pants Are Still On Fire.”

“Perhaps most interestingly,” says Pulley, “(Dis)Honesty shows us how we rationalize that mendacity.”

And some lies are worse—way worse—than others. Dennis Harvey, Variety:

Any era is a good one for liars, but folks on every point of the moral or political spectrum are likely to agree: We are living in a fibbers’ renaissance. As Yael Melamede’s documentary notes, various bendings of the truth have among other things recently led us into war, crashed the economy, and allowed potentially catastrophic despoiling of the planet to continue more or less unchecked.

You might be thinking right about now that politicians are the worst? Well, apparently bankers top them, says Ariely.

Pamela Meyer, acknowledging we live in a “post-truth society,” speaks with authority on this subject. Her 2010 book is called Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception. She uses a 5-step BASIC method to ascertain whether someone is lying or not (Baseline behavior; Ask open-ended questions; Study the clusters; Intuit the gaps; Confirm).

Things would be a whole lot better, of course, if more people told the truth in the first place. Author/neuroscientist Sam Harris, has a brief 2011 Kindle book called Lyingin which he…

…argues that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie. He focuses on ‘white’ lies—those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing people discomfort—for these are the lies that most often tempt us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.

Selected quotes from Lying:

 A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie.

Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.

By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) remains one of the foremost authorities on lying and truth-telling. He pointed out one of the most practical aspects of lying:

If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.

And that should be a strong enough incentive, don’t you think?

Jun 01

Toxic Shame Vs. Guilt: Lists You Can Use

Toxic shame is the feeling that we are somehow inherently defective, that something is wrong with our being. Guilt is “I made a mistake, I did something wrong.” Shame is “I’m a mistake, something is wrong with me.” At the core of our wounding is the unbearable emotional pain resulting from having internalized the false message that we are not loved because we are personally defective and shameful. Robert Burney

The following articles break down aspects of toxic shame and aspects of guilt. Click on the links below for details.

Signs You Have Shame by Arlin Cuncic, Verywellmind.com

  • Feeling sensitive
  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Uncontrollable blushing
  • Feeling used
  • Feeling rejected
  • Feeling like you have little impact
  • Being worried what others think about you
  • Worrying that you aren’t treated with respect
  • Feeling like others take advantage of you
  • Wanting to have the last word
  • Not sharing your thoughts or feelings because you are afraid to be embarrassed
  • Being afraid to look inappropriate or stupid
  • Being more worried about failure than doing something immoral
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Feeling like an outsider or that you are different or left out
  • Feeling suspicious or like you can’t trust others
  • Not wanting to be the center of attention
  • Being a wallflower or shrinking violet
  • Wanting to shut people out or withdraw
  • Feeling that you can’t be your true self
  • Trying to hide yourself or be inconspicuous
  • Losing your identity
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Feelings of regret
  • Feeling dishonorable

Finally, the behaviors below are examples of things that people do when they feel shame:

  • Looking down instead of looking people in the eye
  • Keeping your head hung low
  • Slumping your shoulders instead of standing up straight
  • Feeling frozen or unable to move
  • Not being able to act spontaneously
  • Stuttering when you try to speak
  • Talking in an overly soft voice
  • Hiding yourself from others
  • Crying if you feel shame or embarrassment

9 Things You Need to Know About Shame by Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT, Psychology Today

  1. Shame and guilt are different emotions.
  2. Shame has an evolutionary origin.
  3. Shame can begin in childhood.
  4. Shame has warning signs.
  5. There are many types of shame.
  6. Shame can lead to other negative emotions.
  7. Shame can negatively affect your relationships.
  8. Shame can harm your physical health.
  9. There is a cure for shame.

Five Things to Know About Toxic Shame by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, Psychology Today

  1. We all have it.
  2. No one wants to talk about shame.
  3. We are not born feeling bad about ourselves. It’s a symptom of our environment.
  4. Shame is excruciatingly painful.
  5. Relief from shame is possible.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Guilt by Guy Winch, PhD, Psychology Today

  1. Guilt protects our relationships.
  2. We experience 5 hours a week of guilty feelings.
  3. Unresolved guilt is like having a snooze alarm in your head that won’t shut off.
  4. Guilty feelings make it difficult to think straight.
  5. Guilt makes us reluctant to enjoy life.
  6. Guilt can make you self-punish.
  7. Guilt can make you avoid the person you’ve wronged.
  8. Guilt trips make you feel guilty but also resentful.
  9. Guilt-prone people assume they’ve harmed others when they haven’t.
  10. Guilty feelings may make you feel literally heavier and more belabored.

5 Ways to Release Toxic Guilt by Andrea F. Polard, PsyD, Psychology Today

  1. Notice your guilt.
  2. Begin the inquiry.
  3. Tolerate the discomfort.
  4. Ask for forgiveness and/or forgive yourself.
  5. Individuate. [Related to codependency.]

8 Empowering Ways to Stop Feeling Guilty by Melanie Greenberg, PhD, Psychology Today

  1. Look for the evidence.
  2. Be direct and get more information.
  3. Appreciate yourself and all that you do.
  4. Think about how you would see things if the roles were reversed.
  5. Curb the “black and white” thinking.
  6. Look for the emotions underneath the guilt.
  7. Decide how much you’re willing and able to do.
  8. Realize it’s okay to take care of your own needs.