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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 11, No. 5 September 2009 Winona, MN


The Carleton Simon and Garfunkel Humor Preference Experiment


In the last issue of HQN, we discussed a new, expanded Vitalist Humor Test (ELBVHT) and its first operational use at the Carleton College 2009 Reunion.  Carleton Reunion 2009 also provided a formal opportunity for presentation of Institute of Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies (ITCHS) empirical findings along with the opportunity to continue experiments begun at the 2006 Reunion.


At that time, ITCHS tested whether memories of Peter, Paul, and Mary songs were related to differences in humor for the Class of 1966, then the 40th reunion class.  Very substantial relationships were found between four Peter, Paul, and Mary songs and sub-forms of mental humor.  High-confidence synthetic humor personality results were observed and reported both on a Carleton website and at the ISHS annual conference in Newport, Rhode Island.  The same material formed the basis for a chapter in December Comedy.


The 2006 experiment was itself derived from an experiment in the months immediately following 9-11 in 2001.  In that experiment, students at Winona State University were asked to meditate on first verses of four patriotic American songs.  They were then asked to assign 10 points among the four songs for each of five criteria, criteria like, “Which would you prefer to hear at a football game or other sporting event?”  The total points awarded for each song over five criteria were then compared to Humor Quotient Test (HQT) results. (Results of this experiment were reported on in HQN 8.1 and HQN 8.2.)


The 2009 formal Carleton experiment tested whether respondents’ appreciation for Simon and Garfunkel songs was related to respondents’ mental humor preferences as measured by the cartoon half of the HQT.  So while the idea of the test was essentially analogous to the Patriotic Songs and the Peter, Paul, and Mary experiments of earlier years, one very significant difference was that the 2009 experiment would use only the cartoon half whereas the previous experiments had used the full HQT.





Switching to the cartoon half alone had several motivations.  Perhaps the most prominent is that the HQT cartoon half has been increasingly used in nursing home and professional meeting contexts in recent years.  The shorter test is more manageable but also less onerous for the very old.


Recalling College Days


The choice of Simon and Garfunkel songs reflected the help of the Class of 1969 reunion planning committee as well as the strong folk-song tradition at Carleton throughout the ‘60’s.  The Class of ’69 had come to Carleton two years after the appearance on campus of Peter, Paul, and Mary, which was the impetus for the experiment at the 2006 reunion of the Class of 1966.  Simon and Garfunkel were at an earlier stage in their careers from a Class of 1969 perspective than were Peter, Paul, and Mary from a Class of 1966 perspective.  For the 2006 experiment, only responses from the Class of 1966 were used.  For the 2009 experiment, all respondents (that is classes from 1959 on) at the ITCHS presentation were included in test findings.


The cooperation of the Class of 1969 planning committee and of the Carleton Alumni Office is deeply appreciated.


Significance of results in this data set has been determined by the Difference of Proportion Test, which has a standard deviation equal to the square root of  pq* (1/n1+1/n2).  Passing attention was given to measurement using the Wilcoxon-Mann-Whitney Ranks test.  Only results that have similar ranks analysis of confidence are reported here. A total of 40 useable responses were included in these calculations.


Respondents were asked to distribute 10 points among the four songs for each of five criteria: most remembered, best liked in college, considered aesthetically best today, most typical of the late-‘60’s, and most prophetic of our times. About 15% did not answer for all five criteria, in which cases each song was awarded an average 2.5 points in that criterion.  The five criteria scores for each song were then added together to form an index of song appreciation.  (This method of forming an appreciation index has been repeatedly successfully used with side tests of the HQT.)




It is hard to determine in advance four songs that will overall be equally appreciated by respondents.  In the Simon and Garfunkel side test, this again proved true. Total appreciation points awarded by respondents were:

“I Am a Rock”                 124

“Mrs. Robinson”              150

“Scarborough Fair”          264

“Sounds of Silence”          262


It should also be noted that “Mrs. Robinson” was made particularly famous for its use in the sound track of The Graduate.  The movie quite conceivably affected many respondents’ understanding and appreciation of the song.


Humor preference analysis with the HQT has routinely been run at two levels: an analytic level and a synthetic level.  The analytic level considers the four joke types tested (Gotcha, Sympathetic Pain, Incongruity, and Word Play).  Synthetic analysis considers the six humor personalities constructed from combinations of two analytic preferences (thus Crusader personality is a synthetic combination of Gotcha and Incongruity preference).


High-Confidence Analytic Correlations


At the analytic level, the Carleton experiment found 6 high-confidence relationships between Simon and Garfunkel appreciation and humor preference.  Typically these high-confidence results indicated that elevated levels of humor preference (or depressed levels of humor preference) were disproportionately associated with either high or low song appreciation.


The highest confidence level recorded was the correlation between high levels of Word Play and appreciation for “Scarborough Fair,” with a z score of 2.458, p<.015.


There were two other high-confidence results correlating Word Play with song appreciation.  Low Word Play was almost as strongly correlated with appreciation for “Mrs. Robinson” as high Word Play was associated with “Scarborough Fair” (z = 2.45, p<.015).





And low Word Play was also associated with appreciation for “Sounds of Silence” at a somewhat lower level (z = 2.17, p<.03).


Preference for Gotcha humor was positively related to both “I Am a Rock” (z = 2.06, p<.04) and “Mrs. Robinson” (z = 2.32, p slightly above.02).


There were no high-confidence correlations between song preference and Sympathetic Pain.  And there was one high-confidence correlation between song preference and Incongruitypreference for Incongruity was related to high levels of appreciation for “Sounds of Silence” (z = 2.16, p slightly more than .03).


It probably should be mentioned that there was a strong negative correlation between “Scarborough Fair” and Incongruity. That is, high Incongruity was associated with low appreciation for “Scarborough,” with z = 1.91, p somewhat greater than .055, and thus not a high-confidence result.


In addition to these cases of straight-line high-confidence results, there was extensive evidence of mediality as well, that is, correlations of middlish, rather than high or low, humor preference with high song appreciation. The most spectacular of these results was that medial levels of Gotcha correlate with high appreciation for “Sounds of Silence” (z = 3.09, p about .002).  “Scarborough Fair” also had a high appreciation relationship with medial Gotcha (z = 2.27, p<.025).




Simon and Garfunkel songs were very highly related to analytic humor preference with the Carleton sample respondents.  Of 16 possible correlations between 4 humor preferences and the appreciation of four Simon and Garfunkel hits, 6 were high-confidence and 2 of the 6 were beyond 98.5% confidence.




In addition, at lest two medial correlations were found, thus a half of the possible correlations between humor preference and song appreciation measured at least 95% confidence.  One of the medial results measured at the 99.8% confidence level.


From a literary standpoint, some of these results are perhaps easier to understand than others.


The highest straight-line correlation was a positive correlation between Word Play and “Scarborough Fair.”  It should be remembered that the Simon and Garfunkel version of this traditional English folksong interwove the ballad with a canticle on war.  As a result, there was a complex play of words and music throughout and particular ironies of juxtaposed wordings.   The high-confidence result then simply points out that Word Play can assume very complex forms, in this case a form inextricably bound to the play of music as well.


And no one who has seen The Graduate is likely to be surprised by the positive correlation between Gotcha humor and song appreciation.  After all, in the movie, Mrs. Robinson evidently thinks she is smart enough to carry on an affair with her husband’s best friend’s son only to find at the end of the movie that her toy boy is now also her son-in-law.


Nor should it take extensive explanation that “Sounds of Silence” would be positively correlated to Incongruity.    After all, if the people bow and pray to the neon god they made, the irony is at once glaring, contemporary, and as old as the prophetic condemnation of man-made idols in pre-exilic Israel.


The positive correlation between “I Am a Rock” and Gotcha perhaps begs a little more thought.  Perhaps the highly upbeat and confidently assertive nature of the musical accompaniment has something to do with this correlation which, after all, is at the low end of our correlations.  “I Am a Rock”” celebrates a life strategy of being an island, being unaffected and detached.  If the song is nevertheless a Gotcha, it is the Gotcha that success of this kind is its own condemnation: “an island never cries”—true enough, but a sad commentary on the abuse of human potential.




The negative correlation between “Sounds of Silence” and Word Play may also be somewhat disturbing.  After all, isn’t “sounds of silence” itself a word play, an oxymoron?  Evidently from our respondents’ viewpoint, the answer was a sub-conscious, “No.”  The “sounds of silence” are all-too-real and all-too-graphically portrayed on the subway walls and tenement halls.   As already mentioned, our Carleton respondents’ preference for Incongruity, not for Word Play, was positively related to “Sounds of Silence.”


And perhaps similarly, the negative relationship between “Mrs. Robinson” and Word Play can be understood despite superficial challenge.  “Mrs. Robinson” uses a number of incongruous word choices, shifts in level that undercut and negatively comment upon the words immediately adjacent, what one would normally think of as Word Play  (“heaven holds a place for those who pray—hey, hey hey” and the like).


The fact of a high negative correlation would seem to indicate that respondents did not take such drops of tone as Word Play but as part of the overall Gotcha feel of the song as a whole, swift ironic slashes at a life of pretense.


Medial Results


And that brings us to the two medial results.  The fact that there are any medial correlations suggests that Simon and Garfunkel are often engaged in a high-tension art form, where balance between extremes is more likely to appreciate the result.  The fact that one of these results measures 99.8% confidence only underscores this way of looking at the Simon and Garfunkel achievement.


Both medial results were for high appreciation with medial humor preference levels.  And both involve Gotcha humor preference.  Appreciation of “Scarborough Fair” is associated with medial Gotcha humor at about the 97.5% confidence level, while high appreciation of “Sounds of Silence” is associated with medial Gotcha at the 99.8% confidence level.  These results may be better understood as low appreciation going with extremes of Gotcha humor.





In both cases, the mathematical result seems to indicate that a balanced modicum of Gotcha humor has a higher probability of going with high appreciation of the songs while extreme levels of either appreciation or disappreciation of Gotcha humor go with low appreciation of the songs.


“Sounds of Silence” is a general condemnation of modern urban society.  That might seem the base for Gotcha humor.  But if we recognize that the song’s condemnation is for us as well as for others—do not ask for whom the bell toll, it tolls for thee—that Gotcha base is heavily undercut.  Further, the fact that the condemnation is based on things that none of us likely believes he has any control over—the writing on subway  walls and tenement halls, the ever present neon signs—mitigates any relationship to Gotcha as well.  So high-Gotcha sensibility isn’t particularly appropriate to appreciation of the song.  But neither is low Gotcha sensibility, because the vision of “Sounds of Silence” is definitely apocalyptic and in apocalypse unjust societies are maximally destroyed, the just and the unjust together.


The case for “Scarborough Fair”’s medial association with Gotcha is even more complex, and perhaps that is why the correlation is somewhat less strong.   Performed in the Vietnam War Era, the song is obviously being used as a war protest.  That at first seems to be the base for a Gotcha on those who got us into war and kept us there.  But the traditional folk song that is being used as a base isn’t directly about war at all and speaks to both a broken personal relationship and possibly impossible demands for restoration of the relationship matched with an unwillingness to let go of the past.    Superimposed on a canticle on war, the traditional melody becomes a complex and unpointed commentary on the fallibility and ambiguity all flesh is heir to.  If the artistic work is unpointed commentary, then excessive Gotcha sensibility is not being called upon, but at the same time, a lack of Gotcha sensibility might destroy the tense tenor of the discussion just as well.





The Carleton Simon and Garfunkel experiment like the Carleton Peter, Paul, and Mary experiment show that for important audiences, the appreciation of folk song music of the Vietnam War Era is correlated  to humor preference.


However, the high-confidence results in the Carleton Simon and Garfunkel experiment are prominently analytic humor results while earlier experiments including the Carleton Peter, Paul, and Mary experiment tended to highlight synthetic results.  The difference is perhaps worth future publication to consider in depth.


                                                                                    Paul Grawe and

                                                                                    Robin Jaeckle Grawe






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