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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Does a sense of humor correlate with IQ?

One of the arguments against the g factor is the existence of savants, autistic people who are mind-bogglingly good at one particular kind of mental task, but subnormal in most other ways. I don't find this a particularly compelling argument: severe autistics are too anomalous an offshoot to draw conclusions about the rest of humanity from.

To me, a better argument against g would be the existence of Asians. Northeast Asians (Japanese, Korean, northern Chinese) average somewhere between 105 and 110 on IQ, yet the vast majority of Asians have nerdy personalities. If g is such an all around boost, why do so many Asian-Americans seem to have weak senses of humor? (I'm half-Asian, which is probably why I seem to spend around half my life being lame. Actually, now that I think of it, my white half is pretty lame too: let's call it seven-eighths.)

For that matter, it's been my experience that blacks, who on average do poorly on IQ tests, often have good senses of humor. Does IQ not correlate with humor?

Possibly. I've known plenty of whites with all sorts of intellectual credentials and incredibly lame senses of humor. And I've met plenty of whites with none who have good senses of humor. So what gives?

It may just be that a lower level of inhibitions correlates with a better sense of humor. Much of humor consists of saying things others are unwilling -- perhaps too shy or too inhibited -- to say. Delivery is crucial as well: telling a joke hesitantly basically strangles it. Sociopaths are totally uninhibited, and this allows them to be glibly charming, with what appears at first to be a good sense of humor (in fact they usually just have a bunch of prepackaged lines they trot out at the appropriate times).

It also helps to have an outsider's perspective, which may help explain the many funny blacks and gays.

Gays seem particularly skillful at delivering funny impressionistic summations of situations which highlight their absurdity -- witness David Sedaris.

A sense of humor may derive in part from a sense of helplessness. (As in, the winners get the spoils, the losers get philosophy -- because they have no choice but to be philosophical about things.)

It also helps to have what is known as a twisted outlook, all the better to have a sick sense of humor. But this may also just be a matter of being a left-handed, right-brained type of person, the type long associated with creativity.

Speed of thought helps too. If you're like me, and can only think of the perfect response half an hour later, no one will ever think you funny.

It has often been said that comedians are angry people. So that probably helps. Except I've never seen a person actually throwing a temper tantrum who was funny except in an unintentional way. It's also been said that the top comedians are often substance abusers. And, come to think of it, you don't see a lot of Asian-American alcoholics.

But many of the funniest people I know are also the smartest. This can't be just coincidence. A few of them are even well-adjusted: having a sense of humor would seem to equip one well for the various slings and arrows that come our way.

So is humor a form of intelligence or not? I'd say that it is, even if it doesn't correlate well with measured IQ.

One thing a sense of humor does correlate with is sanity -- which also doesn't necessarily correlate well with IQ. (The existence of Harvard University is testimony to that.) To have a sense of what's absurd or out of place or unexpected, you must start with a strong sense of what is normal.

There also seems to be a gender correlation. Men are just funnier than women. There, I've said it. But it's not as if I'm the only one who's ever noticed -- or said -- this. I've heard similar comments from a wide range of people, including some females. (As the old saying goes, a woman with a good sense of humor is one who laughs at your jokes.)

If testosterone is associated with humor, then that might explain why blacks are funnier than Asians, since blacks on average have the highest testosterone levels, and Asians the lowest. But you don't generally associate a quick wit with muscle bound NFL linemen. On the contrary, when you look at the top comedians, like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle or Richard Pryor or Howard Stern, they tend to be skinny guys who look like they'd be lucky to make the JV basketball team.

There's also a correlation with humor and narcissism -- a negative correlation. If you can't laugh at yourself, you're probably not going to be very funny.

So it's settled then: the funniest person is going to be a quick-witted, left-handed, gay, non-narcissistic black man who is exceptionally intelligent and sane.

I started out writing that sentence intending to sound sarcastic. But now that I look at it, that guy actually does sound as if he'd probably have a good sense of humor.


Anonymous said...

Entertaining post John.

I wonder about your comments on Asians however, and in particular whether the Asian cultural norms of public behavior might mask the expression of their sense of humor. I recall from business trips to Japan years ago that while behavior of Japanese colleagues during the business day suggested nerdiness, these guys (as of course they all were) really whooped it up around midnight after their 5th Johnny Walker. Also, judging for example from some of the odder TV shows they make, it's clear that their sense of humor is a little different. Any thoughts from your half-Asian side?
PS I enjoyed the previous post also. In my experience ideologues of all varieties have difficulty with facts and open-minded debate

John Craig said...

Thanks Guy.

What you're saying sort of goes along with my part of my theory: inhibited people have a hard time being funny for that reason, and drinks would certainly get rid of the inhibitions. But I also have to question whether these Japanese businessmen were actually funny, i.e., cuttingly scathing in an ironic, clever, off-beat sort of way, or whether they were just whooping it up. Because if the latter is the definition of wit, then every drunk Phillies fan is Oscar Wilde, which I don't buy.

Anyway, that was the white half of me speaking. The Asian side is too inhibited to say anything; guess I ought to have a drink to loosen up, except it's too early in the morning.

Anonymous said...

PS How do you know that your Asian side isn't the witty one??

Paavo said...

I think the leading theory is that jokes and humor are about status.

That's why men are more humorous: they have more other status struggles as well. Joking is about making something dignified look ridiculous.

Interaction between women is having good relationships or stabbing in the back. Between men it is more of an open struggle. Joking is often aggressive, and many homicides start with joking.

Maybe Asians are more domesticated people. Making fun of rulers and institutions or even making fun of other peasants is not good for the society. Joking is too much about challenging the hierarchy and the social order. Joking is like fighting: not productive. It's better that you compete with thrift and hard work.

And then jokesters are often inhibited socially. Humour is a way to keep people at a distance. And happy people are not funny.

John Craig said...

My Asian side expresses itself in my overall fanaticism (on any number of subjects), my respect for my elders (of whom there seem to be fewer and fewer these days), my youthful inhibitions (long since disappeared), my awkwardness with females, and my willingness to spend my time in pointless pursuits (like writing this blog). My white half expresses itself in my occasional piggishness (ask my former girlfriends), and my eagerness to look down on others. As for the humor, thin (and delayed) as it is, that actually probably comes from having been a half-breed outsider most of my life. These days Eurasians mixes are so common it no longer qualifies you as an outsider, but when I was young, at least in the Eastern US, it did.

Hmm. That was a little more self-exposure than I had planned on.

John Craig said...

PS -- I'd classify you as a high-IQ white guy who was lucky enough to be born with a lot of muscle, enough to escape nerdiness -- but without that muscle I have to say I'm not sure which side of the line you would have fallen on.

John Craig said...

Paavo --
Thank you for your comment; my previous two comments were directed at Guy, by the way, I don't seem to be able to control the order in which they get posted.

You make a lot of good points. Yes, a lot of humor is about status; and men are more open about their struggles. And yes, the Confucian ethic doesn't lend itself to the kind of disrespect that good jokes embody.

The one place I'd disagree with you is about jokesters being socially inhibited. In my experience the funniest people are often the most socially adept, and the best at drawing people in. Not always, but usually.

Anonymous said...

Nerds rule the world (though most people don't realize it, even though they are probably working for one) so I know which side of the line I want to be on. :)

John Craig said...

Guy -- That's a really interesting question, actually. Do nerds rule the world? Certainly Bill Gates has done better than your average h.s. football quarterback. But from Genghis on down, there has also been a long tradition which extends down through Hitler, Stalin, and a number of others whom I'd have a hard time classifying as nerds. There are a lot of leaders who are somewhat wimpy wannabe tough guys -- like JFK, or either Bush -- who are more likely to succeed these days. (I put myself in that category, btw, though without the success.) nerds certainly do better on average than high school hotshots, but do they rule the world? I don't know. How would you classify Berlusconi and Sarkozy, for instance? Or even Obama? Not sure which side of the fence they fall on.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends a little on what you mean by "rule the world". I was really using the expression in the broader sense of who controls the wider levers of political and, particularly, economic power. It's certainly the case that the political leaders do not always seem to be in the nerdy camp (eg Berlusconi), but plenty of them are, I think, nerds plus. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are perhaps a good examples. In the business and financial world I think nerds are in the ascendancy (eg Blankfein) and in even greater numbers in senior management/executive than in outright leadership, simply because modern complexity requires a nerdy bent. Plus, many very influential nerds are invisible to or ignored by the media. Did you ever read this?
It sometimes seems to me that society is trying to go down this path.

John Craig said...

Wasn't there a movie out recently based on that theme?

I can't disagree with anything else you say except for your classification of Bill Clinton as a nerd. Early on, before he became President, he had a reputation as a wonk, mostly because of that long speech he gave at the '88 convention. But, as I posted recently, he was a classic textbook sociopath, and sociopaths are always sociopaths first and foremost, whatever other identities they assume. And I think "nerd" is about the last identity that fits a sociopath, even one with as high an IQ and as comprehensive a grasp of American politics as Clinton.

I saw him only once in person, at a Willie Nelson concert. He had recently left office and was brought out to introduce Willie; when Clinton appeared on stage, half the audience cheered wildly and half (including me) booed loudly. Clinton didn't miss a beat; he took the microphone and smilingly said, "I'd like to thank those of you who cheered for me....And I'd also like to thank those of you who didn't -- for demonstrating the breadth of Willie's appeal."

It was vintage Clinton, as cool and smooth and unruffled as only a sociopath can be. It was obviously a line he had used variants of before, but his delivery was perfect, and it was impressive.

Anonymous said...

I would include "geeks" with nerds in my arguments. The following definitions are from Wikipedia:

"The word geek is a slang term, noting individuals as "One who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc."

"Nerd is a term, often bearing a derogatory connotation or stereotype, that refers to a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities."

John Craig said...

Thank you Guy.

I'd never realized that "nerd" was considered more derogatory than "geek."

(Though, by those definitions, I'm both.)

Anonymous said...

I defer to your Bill Clinton assessment, but I would still argue that there is some nerd in there. Referring again to the great Wikipedia:
"In Hot Springs, Clinton attended St. John's Catholic Elementary School, Ramble Elementary School, and Hot Springs High School - where he was an active student leader, avid reader, and musician. He was in the chorus and played the tenor saxophone, winning first chair in the state band's saxophone section. He briefly considered dedicating his life to music, but as he noted in his autobiography My Life:

Sometime in my sixteenth year I decided I wanted to be in public life as an elected official. I loved music and thought I could be very good, but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz. I was interested in medicine and thought I could be a fine doctor, but I knew I would never be Michael DeBakey. But I knew I could be great in public service."

John Craig said...

Thank you Guy (for all your comments).

Interesting, and I'm sure all true, but none of that background is mutually exclusive with sociopathy.

dgh said...


I must say that those people who are witty and funny are also able to manipulate situations with their humour and quick wit. It is very difficult for me to stay justifiably angry with my husband when he comes up with such witty comments! He can "diffuse" me on a whim. Your story of Bill Clinton at the Willie Nelson concert was a good example of that.

And as for you characterizing yourself as being "lame" and having "thin" humour, all I can say is that reading the comments of your published work would prove otherwise! :) I had a really good laugh!

dgh said...

Meant to say my husband is able to "defuse" me as in neutralizing a bomb. I caught mistake as it was posting. donna

John Craig said...

Donna --
Thank you very much....Your husband is definitely a witty guy. I've found it hard in the past to stay mad too when someone makes a wittily self-deprecating joke. Though, I suspect like you, I'd prefer to remain angry.

John Craig said...

Donna, I didn't even notice the mistake. The word "diffuse" could actually be used in this context, as in, "My anger was diffused" (i.e., spread out and disappeared). Anyway, sorry, the "mistake" is there in perpetuity.

Paavo said...

"The one place I'd disagree with you is about jokesters being socially inhibited. In my experience the funniest people are often the most socially adept, and the best at drawing people in. Not always, but usually"

Maybe it's just a stereotype. It was on the friends, with chandler making jokes instead of close friendships. Joking makes buddies, but not really close friends. In my experience humour and jokes are toxic to deep emotional experiences.

But maybe it's just me. I have a habit of making jokes to hide my insecurity.

John Craig said...

Paavo -- True, humor and jokes are meant to ward off pain -- or at least make light of it. But I wouldn't say that being socially inhibited and having deep emotional experiences are antithetical; I'm not sure what the relationship, if any, is. But I would say that cracking jokes is a good way of putting others at ease and relieving tension, one of the more useful social skills if not the most.

Aubrey Jayne said...

This is a fantastic question.. I was wondering the same thing. I'm doing a PowerPoint for my Human Growth and Development class and thought I'd try to find if there was a correlation between IQ and one's sense of humor.. It's too bad we can't use blogs as sources because this is a great one.. nice thoughts!

John Craig said...

Aubrey -- Thank you so much. Even if you can't use this as an official source, please feel free to use it unofficially (i.e., without giving it credit) -- I don't mind, seriously.

Good luck getting to 115, btw.