Why replication is funny

A sadly undervalued fact about replication, easily missed amid the clamour over expertise (Strack, 2017), flair (Baumeister, 2016), contextual variability (Crandall & Sherman, 2016), bullying (Schnall, 2014), tone (Chambers, 2017), and of course the “improvement of psychological science”, is that replication is funny. As a case in point, consider this short video. It was prepared by Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, Titia Beek, and Laura Dijkhoff for their replication of a classic study of a ‘facial feedback’ effect (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988; Wagenmakers et al., 2016). The original experiment had purportedly shown that people holding a pen between their teeth (which produces a smile) rate cartoons on average funnier than people holding a pen between their lips (which produces a pout). The facial expression enhances the emotion, even when people do not realise they’re smiling.

Wagenmakers and colleagues had this experiment replicated not once, but seventeen times, by different labs. To show those seventeen labs how to conduct the experiment and make sure that all replications were close copies, Wagenmakers’ team created an instruction video. They made a mock-up of a cubicle, furnished it with the experimental materials, and filmed two people as they enacted the procedure of the experiment.

The result is a work of art, a piece of absurdist theatre. Everything about it is perfect: the voice-over, the deadpan acting of Gusta Marcus as the participant, and the attention to banal details like the brand of pen (“the Stabilo 68 is odourless and has a push-resistant tip”), the box of tissues, and the alcohol swabs. It is all presented matter-of-factly, with a straight face as it were.

Why is this funny? What makes this video so hilarious? It is not just the slapstick of filling in a questionnaire with a pen between your teeth, although that certainly enhances the effect. I believe the basic humour here lies in the imitation. Note that the video represents an imitation of the original experiment, that it is itself meant to be imitated in seventeen labs, and that two of its key scenes show the subject imitating the instructions she sees before her on the computer screen. Imitation is the main engine of this comedy.

To understand what makes imitation funny, we turn to Henri Bergson, the French philosopher best known for his ideas about time and memory, and for his philosophy of evolution, which is often criticised as vitalist. His book Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic, originally published in French in 1900, is one of his easier and less controversial works. Bergson’s project in Laughter is ambitious: he sets out to show that all humour is ultimately a variation on a single basic theme. Such single-principle-theories of humour are a dime a dozen, but what sets apart his own, Bergson claims, is that it doesn’t just explain. It furnishes a rule for the construction of humour, and the analysis should be confirmed by the success of the recomposition.

The principle behind all humour, according to Bergson, is that laughter is a response to rigidity in behaviour, thought or character. When something inflexible or mechanical intrudes into the flow of human action and interaction we tend to find that funny. Imitation is one of the simplest ways of creating this effect. By merely repeating another’s gestures or words, or by showing how they repeat themselves, we can strip them of their meaning and bring the rigidity in them to the fore.

For a contemporary example, consider Exactitudes, the ongoing photo project of Ari Versluis and Ellis Uyttenbroek. Their compositions show kinds of individuality multiplied twelve times: twelve geeks, twelve skinheads, twelve elderly volunteers (my favourite), all being themselves in virtually the same way, intentionally or unintentionally imitating each other with very similar clothing and a matching stance. Arranged in a 3 by 4 grid their personalities disappear and their materiality suddenly dominates, a comic effect that is amplified when the types are juxtaposed and you see the twelve intellectuals-with-hats next to a dozen ‘yummie mummies’.

In a way, this has also been one of social psychology’s main projects: to show that beneath the surface of thinking, feeling, conscious being, people are machines, driven by cognitive mechanisms that respond to social stimuli, behaving in predictably similar ways. We may think we’re autonomous, clever and creative, but we’re all stuck in a rut. This is the punchline of dual systems theory, of automaticity theory, of Daniel Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2, and of the implicit association test, to name but a few. It is also what gives the original facial feedback study its bite: those heartfelt emotions that, we think, express who we really are, can be mechanically modulated by something as simple as holding a pen between your teeth.

Just as in Exactitudes, psychology usually requires repetition and juxtaposition to make the mechanism visible and bring about this deflationary effect. Only by repeating the experiment with 92 subjects (in Strack et al.’s original study), and arranging the resulting data in a two-dimensional mathematical space (position of pen x funniness of cartoons) does the mechanism become visible. What Versluis and Uyttenbroek do with a simple 3 by 4 grid of portraits, psychologists do with statistics. Certainly, the psychologists’ procedure is more complicated – and it has to be, because the effects are smaller – but at heart it is very similar.

And now we have a seventeen-fold replication of the facial feedback experiment, and the effect has disappeared. All the effect sizes were small, scattered on both sides of zero, with an average of 0.03 difference in funniness rating between smile and pout. We could simply look at this as an especially thorough replication study, with a fairly unequivocal result: that this particular hypothesis should be rejected. “Muscle contractions associated with smiling” (Strack et al., 1988, 770) do not affect the experience of humour, at least not in this experimental procedure. But then we would miss the comedy of the whole episode. The very fact that the scene of the instruction video was re-enacted a total of 2417 times, in seventeen labs divided over eight countries, would be funny even if the original effect had been reproduced. The sheer mechanical repetition of the procedure robs it of its meaning and turns it into parody. It loses its scientific charisma and becomes a series of bizar actions. What was meaningful has become mechanical. It is now hilarious.

Of course, it is still possible not to be amused. Comedy is not an objective thing, it can only happen with a receptive audience. Bergson notes at the outset that detachment is a precondition of humour. If you love a person deeply, his malapropisms will be endearing, but you will not laugh at him, unless you forget your affection for a moment. Similarly, if you’re not willing to let go of the idea that something of great scientific importance is happening in the facial feedback experiment, then you will never find it funny. Detachment is easier when you know that the replications had a null result, but all that is really necessary is that you do not take the study too seriously. Comic intent, on the other hand, is not required for something to be funny. Whether or not Wagenmakers and his team were making fun of facial feedback is irrelevant. It is all up to you, the audience.

According to Bergson, all laughter is, ultimately, a social gesture. It is a corrective, a mild form of punishment for a loss of meaning and flexibility. Life and society demand constant adaptation, and when our actions, our thought or our character become stiff and mechanical, others correct us with their laughter. Even if we don’t buy into Bergson’s view of life and society as essentially creative, driven by an élan vital, we may still recognise this punitive aspect of laughter. When a replication makes us laugh, it is because what is supposed to be science suddenly appears merely sciency. The experiment may be nothing more than two people going through the motions in a cubicle, the whole study little more than output. As much as direct replication emphasizes procedure, it should always be theoretically, scientifically meaningful, and when it isn’t we laugh. In that sense, those who complain about the tone of the discussion in psychology do have a point: replications that fail and the laughter that follows are humiliating. But this has an important function. It is how science tries to keep itself on its toes.

 

Baumeister, R. (2016). Charting the future of social psychology on stormy seas: Winners, losers, and recommendations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 66, 153–158.

Bergson, H. (1900). Le rire. Essai sur la signification du comique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Bergson, H. (1911). Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic. (C. Brereton & F. Rothwell, Trans.). New York: The Macmillan company.

Chambers, C. (2017, August 5). Why I hate the ‘tone debate’ in psychology and you should too. Retrieved from http://neurochambers.blogspot.com/2017/08/why-i-hate-tone-debate-in-psychology.html

Crandall, C. S., & Sherman, J. W. (2016). On the scientific superiority of conceptual replications for scientific progress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 66, 93–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.10.002

Schnall, S. (2014, May 23). An Experience with a Registered Replication Project. Retrieved May 25, 2014, from http://www.spspblog.org/simone-schnall-on-her-experience-with-a-registered-replication-project/

Strack, F. (2017). From Data to Truth in Psychological Science. A Personal Perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00702

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768–777. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.54.5.768

Wagenmakers, E.-J., Beek, T., Dijkhoff, L., Gronau, Q. F., Acosta, A., Adams, R. B., … Zwaan, R. A. (2016). Registered Replication Report: Strack, Martin, & Stepper (1988). Perspectives on Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691616674458

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