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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 11, No. 4 August 2009 Winona, MN


New Expanded Vitalist Humor Test:

Correlations to Vitalist Humor Preferences of Carleton College Alums


In the last several issues of HQN, we have begun presenting evidence gathered from nursing home residents and from nursing home staff, particularly with respect to the Humor Quotient Test (HQT).


In this issue, we turn to humor evidence from two experiments at Carleton College.  Both were conducted at the Carleton 2009 Reunion.  One of these experiments was in conjunction with a formal presentation of Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies (ITCHS) findings, and again centered on the HQT.


The other experiment was pursued more informally with members of my 40th-reunion Class of 1969.  ITCHS is grateful for the full cooperation of the Class of ’69 reunion planning committee and to the Carleton Alumni Office in making both of these experiments possible.  The more informal experiment is the focus of the present report.  Its focus was not on the HQT but on a new expanded version of the Langer-Bergson Vitalist Humor Test (LBVHT) discussed in early volumes of HQN (HQN 4.1, HQN 4.2, HQN 5.3, HQN 7.3).  The new version will add “Expanded” to the title, and thus be known as the ELBVHT.


The original LBVHT pits Langerian against Bergsonian jokes.  Both Langerian and Bergsonian forms, or voices, can be seen as quadrilaterals of four sub-forms: Tenacity, Potential, Creativity, and Performance.  That is, Langerian vitalism laughs in response to extraordinary life—if you wish, Langerian laughter celebrates and joys in life.  There are at least four aspects in which Langerian laughter rejoices in life: Tenacity (we love the bulldog who just hangs on), Potential (we love puppies and kittens who have such an extraordinary potential for life), Creativity (the bright idea, the light bulb going on is a moment of joy, discovery, and laughter), and Performance (extraordinary performance is celebrated as extraordinary life).




Bergsonian laughter challenges “the mechanical encrusted on the living,” the failures to stay alive and to be fully alive.  And we can find the same four sub-forms or aspects of Bergsonian vitalism as we find for Langerian: Tenacity (we laugh at someone hanging on too long to an unworthy and lost cause), Potential (we laugh at people who don’t recognize their potential or take the proper steps to build that potential), Creativity (we laugh at the idée fixe, the inability to meet new challenges with human creative intelligence), and Performance (we laugh at clumsiness, awkwardness, and other lapses of performance, especially for the forces that hold back genuine accomplishment).


In the original LBVHT, each of these four Langerian aspects was pitted against its Bergsonian counterpart three times in a total of twelve joke pairs.  Thus, in the original Vitalist test, now Part I of the ELBVHT, one question is scored as either T+ (the Langerian Tenacity joke, designated positive because Langerian humor affirms extraordinary life) or T- (the Bergsonian Tenacity joke, designated negative because Bergsonian humor defies death), pitted against each other.


In the ELBVHT, there are another twelve joke pairs.  But in Part II of the ELBVHT, T+ will be pitted against Po+ (Langerian Potential), against C+ (Langerian Creativity), and against Pe+ (Langerian Performance).  Similarly Bergsonian Tenacity (T-) is tested against each of the other three aspects of Bergsonian vitalism, for a total of twelve jokes in Part II.


The complexity of testing two voices in the same test means there is more than one way of scoring the results.  One can, for example, score Part II in contrast to Part I.  For our purposes in this report, we combine Parts I and II and simply count up the T+ scores over the whole test, similarly for T- scores and for each of the other Langerian and Bergsonian aspects taken individually.


For the ELBVHT as a whole, choosing a Langerian  preference is possible 18 times.  The minimum number of Langerian choices is 6 (six times in Part II where both choices are Langerian).  The same is true for maximum and minimum Bergsonian scores.  A single Langerian scale then from 6 to 18 expresses the range from totally Bergsonian to totally Langerian scores, with a score of 12 representing a balance between Langerian and Bergsonian.




For the original LBVHT, it was found in a number of experiments that the average score was about two in favor of Bergsonian over Langerian humor, conventionally noted as -2.


In the ELBVHT Carleton experiment in 2009, 19 members of the Class of 1969 and/or spouses participated (these do not include Robin and Paul Grawe who administered the experiment).  The average score of these 19 was very close to 11.03, in other words, a bias of about 2 more Bergsonian than Langerian choices.


It is possible that this result derives from the Bergsonian jokes of the test being somewhat inherently funnier than the Langerian jokes chosen.  However, the fact that repeated testing with the original LBHVT evidenced a Bergsonian bias which is now matched with the first operational use of the ELBVHT suggests that rather than the jokes being biased, there is instead a rather natural human bias for critical Bergsonian response rather than rejoicing Langerian response.  From a wide range of humanistic literary evidence, we are surprised if this human bias is as small as the bias in fact repeatedly measured with the LBVHT and its successor.


Side Tests for the Carleton ELBVHT Experiment


As in all other ITCHS humor experiments, we try to create side tests that are particularly appropriate to the real-world concerns of our respondents.


For the Carleton ELBVHT experiment, therefore, we designed two side tests.  Since Carleton is an intensely liberal-arts institution, our first side test presented five sayings from the great aphorists of five nations over the last 3,000 years.  Aphorists are typically known for their aptness in addressing basic life issues, so it was assumed in this design that at least some of their subjects would resonate with Bergsonian or Langerian preference traits of respondents, both Bergson and Langer having strongly suggested the connection between humor and basic life force, Bergson’s élan vital, and our modern conception of vitalism.





While we tried to honor the great aphorists and their respective nations in this test, our interest was not with the literary figure nor the national literature represented but with the sentiments expressed.  So after reading all five sayings carefully, respondents were asked to rank the five sayings (on a 1 to 5 scale of best to worst) three times: for wit, for wisdom, and for elegance.  We added the three rankings of each saying for each respondent as an index of the respondent’s disappreciation (since high rank score is a lack of appreciation) of the saying.


The five sayings (with all due apologies for our translation and, in von Logau’s case, for some ellipsis) were:


Solomon: House and wealth are an inheritance from fathers,

                     But a prudent wife is from the Lord.


Von Logau:  Death is a longer sleep; Sleep is a shorter death.


LaRochefoucauld:  There are perhaps many good marriages,

                                But none of them is delicious.


Shakespeare:                  (Life) is a tale

                               Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

                                Signifying nothing.


Franklin:     Early to bed, early to rise

                       Make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.


(We of course also recognize that the Shakespearean quote represents a tottering MacBeth rather than Shakespeare himself.)




In 2009, the Class of 1969 were on average just about 62 years old, some of them already retired. We therefore thought that a second side test was appropriate, asking respondents what they expected their retirement hobbies to be.  We gave 24 choices plus three additional lines for alternate answers and asked that respondents check the five most attractive possibilities.  Popular choices turned out to be things like Grandchildren, Marital Relationship, Friendships, Gardening, Volunteering, Golf, Travel, Physical Fitness, and Cooking.   Much less popular were Tennis, Coin Collecting, and Politics.


Sample Sayings Results


We can consider the three-rank summation for each aphorist as an Index of Disappreciation since high rank is for worst and low rank is for best aphorism.


And as a first measurement, we can use the Total Langerian Score (that is the sum of Langerian responses for the four Langerian sub-forms (Tenacity, Potential, Creativity, and Performance) as a measure of general Bergsonian or Langerian tendency over a range between 6 (the Bergsonian extreme) and 18 (the Langerian extreme).


Treating Langerian Total Score as the independent, x-variable and Disappreciation Rank of each aphorist as the y-variable, over 19 respondents, we find the following slope coefficients:

Solomon                   -.395

Von Logau               +.508 

LaRochefoucauld      -.002

Shakespeare             +.495

Franklin                     -.606






Clearly, the data break down into two pairs, with LaRochefoucauld standing almost exactly at the balance point between Langerian and Bergsonian relationship to Disappreciation.   The higher one’s Langerian Total Score, the more disappreciation for von Logau and for Shakespeare.  Again, the disappreciation is not for the man but for the sentiment, and in both cases there is a life-abjuring sentiment.  Von Logau equates sleep and death with the clear implication that life is simply a movement toward death.  MacBeth’s speech as his enemies are closing in and as his wife’s death is reported to him is a despairing reevaluation of life and of all human aspiration. 


Since Langerian humor is a direct celebration of extraordinary life, it cannot be at all surprising, (it is in fact a “one-tailed” test) that the more Langerian one’s humor preference, the more one disappreciates von Logau’s and Shakespeare’s crafted rhetorical statements.


At the other extreme, the higher the Langerian humor preference, the more appreciation for Solomon but much more so for Franklin.  In both cases, the aphorism recognizes the possibility of success in life and moreover asserts that life success is not random but occurs in response to teachable principle.  In Solomon’s case, of course, the principle is God’s giftiness and thus finally beyond human control.  In Franklin’s case, success and specific human practice go hand in hand. 


Clearly, in these senses, Franklin and Solomon are much more life-affirming than the given aphorisms of von Logau and Shakespeare.



Sample Hobbies Result


Very few of the expected retirement hobbies, individually showed high confidence relationship to either Langerian or Bergsonian humor sub-forms.





However, combination of two hobbies often showed high confidence relationship to humor. For example, Langerian Creativity showed a close-to- high-confidence, negative correlation to choice of Marital Relationship or Grandchildren. (For this test, respondent was given a 0 for choice of neither, a 1 for choice of one or the other, and a 2 for choice of both Grandchildren and Marital Relationship within the five expected hobby choices.).




The fact that individual hobbies do not correlate well with Vitalist humor is not necessarily disappointing.  After all, someone might choose Marital Relationship because the marriage has needed work for a long time, or because the marriage has never needed much work, or because the marriage in question is some second, later marriage which needs effort as well as time to jell. 


The addition of a second hobby starts to eliminate some of the open-endedness of a single hobby choice.  Take for example, responding that Golf is one of one’s projected hobbies.  We can imagine a respondent being anyone from someone who has waited patiently throughout a long career for a chance to learn the game to someone who has golfed every Wednesday afternoon since a promotion twenty years ago.  But if someone has chosen as hobbies both Golf and Cooking for example, we probably all sense that this narrows the meaning of both choices, and narrows the choice of Golf in a way that choosing Golf and Travel wouldn’t.


The specific result that Marital Relationship and Grandchildren is not linked to high Langerian Creativity seems, on reflection quite natural for 62-year-olds, at or approaching retirement.  For most of those who chose them, marital relations were probably a priority long before retirement as were grandchildren as soon as they were born.  Choosing Marital Relations and Grandchildren as retirement hobbies is not likely to be choosing the new.  It is much more likely to be choosing to follow out a previous commitment.


For all results mentioned above, it should be underscored that the total sample size was 19.  The number of men in the sample was 9 and the number of women 10.  We hope in the near future to be able to report on experiments with a higher total number of respondents.


                                                                             Robin Grawe, ITCHS





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