Clinical Comedy

Clinical Comedy

It is impossible to change people’s minds. Every new fact is taken as confirmation of pre-existing bias, every criticism of our in-group taken as a sign of the critic’s bad faith. We are more sure than ever that we are more sure than ever, we are of one opinion on our stubbornly divided opinions. Everything is seen as a confirmation of confirmation bias.

I mean to persuade you that rather than expanding our understanding of persuasion or the lack thereof, cognitive science has lead us astray. Our public rhetoric has been polluted with an ever-expanding vocabulary of bias and tribalism and irrationality. It should come as no surprise that the pop-science version of this literature has overreached. Cognitive scientists themselves are often complicit in this popularization. More to the point, they approach the matter in question with a fundamentally flawed framework. In so doing, they have damaged our belief in the possibilities of public discussion, and warped our understanding of ourselves.

In March of 2010, Abdesslem Trimech committed self-immolation in protest of injustice. A humble street vendor lit the powder keg which sent Tunisia’s president packing and began what became known as the Arab Spring. But Trimech was not that street vendor. Instead, a different street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, committed self-immolation nine months later, leading to a much more dramatic response. Trimech, tragically, was met largely by silence—at least compared to what Bouazizi’s act appears to have done.

My theory of how these things work is modeled on stand-up comedy. There’s something mysterious about a truly successful set. The comic spends no small amount of time laying groundwork, and then lands a punchline that lights up the room. There’s a palpable effect; people loosen up, they’re more likely to laugh at things they might have only chuckled at mere moments earlier. In a sense, the comedian seeks to master the room rather than any specific people in it. But he never knows ahead of time, or even most of the time he’s up, whether he’s going to pull it off or not. Comedians, especially unknowns and especially unknowns performing at open mics, step into a situation of great uncertainty and emotional vulnerability.

Even seasoned comics with well-tested material can blow it and face the agony of an uncomfortably or tensely silent room. There’s never a guarantee, no matter how good they are, that this day won’t be a bad one, this performance won’t win the audience over. And that is after years of almost entirely bad days. In short, it takes not only practice, but considerable commitment in the face of discomfort and humiliation in order to become skilled at comedy.

Now imagine cognitive scientists attempting to study humor. They have a set of pre-written jokes and have people read them in a controlled environment. Or use your imagination—try to think of any controlled environment in which they could systematically study humor. I can’t. Professional comedians brave pitiless audiences for years in order to master the art of formulating and delivering jokes. If they can’t be guaranteed to make you laugh, do you really think cognitive scientists could, much less reliably and in a way that replicates?

It is no wonder that cognitive scientists make it seem as though we never change our minds. It is much easier to create conditions which fail to change our minds than the other way around! Just as it is a lot easier to elicit polite chuckles than to make your audience laugh so hard they tear up.

The conditions in which we change our minds are highly personal and contingent. Cognitive scientists have never reliably created those conditions in lab settings. If they could, they would make some marketers extremely rich! We ought to be more skeptical of claims in this domain. Persuasion, comedy, and mass movements occur in complex social environments where tons of people spend a lot of time, thought, effort, and money trying to develop the skill to reliably change people’s minds, make them laugh, or get them to take action. The things you can learn on these topics in a controlled environment are just so vanishingly small, and so insignificant.

But the impact of the claims that cognitive scientists and popularizers make are not insignificant. Like a joke told at an open mic, they can land or they can fall flat. Only in this case, when they land, the effect is more than laughter. It is closer to the case of the Arab Spring. It alters our sense of what is possible, and in the realm of rhetoric, politics, and society, our sense of what is possible is very hard to distinguish from what is possible. A crucial facet of a liberal order is a commitment to handle problems through agreement, argument, and compromise. In persuading us that persuasion is impossible, popularized cognitive science effectively argues against argument itself. The alternative to persuasion is, quite obviously, force. The very success of cognitive science is ample demonstration of both the power of persuasion, and its dangers.


Featured image is Stand-up Comedy, by Carlos Delgado