Do you remember the first time you made a good joke? Most likely not. Turns out the first forms of humor emerge super early in infancy, before the first birthday even. We’re not talking about stand-up routines here. We’re talking about a more basic but no less interesting behavior: teasing. In what’s known as “playful teasing,” one individual intentionally violates another’s expectations for the sake of amusement.
In this week’s episode, we’re going behind a recent paper that ask whether apes also tease each other playfully—whether they share our early-emerging impulse to prank and razz each other. My guests are Johanna Eckert, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and Erica Cartmill, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. (For those who may not know, Erica is one of the founders and directors of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, the organization behind Many Minds.) In their paper, Johanna, Erica, and their co-author Sasha Winkler review a wealth of observations made over the years that together suggest that apes do indeed have the pranking impulse. They seem to tease each other in many of the ways infants do, in fact.
Here, we talk about some of these fascinating observations and why they deserve a fresh interpretation. We consider what makes teasing such a cognitively rich behavior. We discuss the different functions teasing may serve and talk about how research on primate teasing is part of a bigger zeitgeist of work on positive emotions in non-human animals.
I’m an inveterate teaser myself; I come from a family of teasers. And I’m someone who tends to show affection for people by teasing them. So I was super excited to dive into this topic. Teasing is fascinating on its own, no question. But it becomes that much more so when we realize that it may shed light on the evolutionarty roots of humor and joking. Understanding teasing can, in other words, help us understand the phylogeny of funniness.
But, before we get going, two bits of exciting news. The first is that we have a new website at disi.org. You’ll find Many Minds there under the ‘Podcast’ tab. Check it out. The second bit is that applications for the 2021 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute are now open! You’ll find the link and bunch more info on the new website, under the ‘Apply’ tab. There are two application tracks, an academic track and a storytelling track. If you like this show—and the kinds of topics we cover—there’s a pretty good chance you’d be interested in DISI. So definitely consider applying yourself and please do share with anyone who may be interested.
Alright, friends—now on to my conversation about playful teasing with Dr. Johanna Eckert and Dr. Erica Cartmill! Hope you enjoy this one!