No Joke: Humor Can Help Us Understand Creativity

Head shot of Professor Aaron KozbeltProfessor Aaron Kozbelt

Many human traits related to behavior have been shaped, at least in part, by evolutionary means like natural selection and sexual selection. Traits that make us more likely to survive or more appealing to potential mates get passed on, while less advantageous ones eventually slip away. But what about a trait like humor? What purpose does it serve from an evolutionary standpoint?
In a new chapter that focuses on the evolutionary origins of humor — part of the edited collection Creativity and Humor — Professor Aaron Kozbelt (GC/Brooklyn College, Psychology) culls from several competing theories explaining humor. Turning to natural selection and sexual selection, and the many studies that have been conducted within those frames, Kozbelt’s chapter produces a compelling overview that helps explain the existence of humor.
Graduate Center: Given that your background lies in the visual arts and your previous research has focused on creativity, what was it about humor that interested you?
Kozbelt: Humor is just sort of generally enjoyable and important as a human phenomenon, and it’s related to creativity, so it had always been on my radar a little bit. It was actually a master’s student a few years after I arrived at Brooklyn College who was interested in the topic, so we dug into the literature. It was fascinating. Around that time, I started doing experimental work on humor. I got swept up in it. It’s never been my number one area, but I’ve kept a pretty consistent finger on the pulse, and in recent years, scenes of evolution have become progressively more important to me. It remains a wonderfully rich and semi-explored area at this moment in time.
GC: What is the added benefit of looking at humor through an evolutionary lens?
Kozbelt: We have these questions about where these uniquely human faculties come from: If you buy the evolutionary backdrop of the emergence of our species, why do we have these things and what good are they? Most of the time, at least in nature, you don’t get things developing that don’t have a purpose, even if it’s sort of incidental. It would be possible to think of something like humor as this crazy one-off that for some reason people do, but taking this other perspective, it’s one facet of a much larger story.
GC: In your chapter, you’re especially focused on humor production or how people generate a joke. Why was that so useful to explore evolution and humor?
Kozbelt: It’s a very natural bias for me to take that on, because of my interest in creativity. The way I typically approach creativity, I’m interested in very high-level creativity, especially in the arts and music. I’m dissatisfied with the way people think about the creative process in those kinds of situations. A lot of it boils down to: If you want to be creative, you need a really good, new idea. I’m not persuaded that’s the case. I think what makes a work interesting is the development of that idea through hard work and problem solving. What’s interesting about humor is that a lot of the best humor is extremely spontaneous. I’m interested in it as a counterweight to the way I usually think about creativity. The capacity for some people to do this very rapid, complex, interesting thing — and for some people to be really good at that — is a fascinating topic.
GC: What comes next as you continue exploring the intersection of humor, creativity, and evolution?
Kozbelt: A lot of what I’m thinking about now deals with looking more closely at the use of humor in mating contexts — you have people who are using humor as a way to find the right person — and how people do that, like when there’s more pressure to be funny, or it’s a more competitive situation. There are lots of directions to go potentially.

Submitted on: MAY 29, 2019

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Psychology