Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Logic of Frustration

In my last post, I used the pattern of human learning to reveal how to structure good improv sketches. However, what I didn't get to, and what I promised I'd explain, was how the same reasoning could be used to improve our everyday lives, and the way we interact with each other. This time, I'm going to focus on the psychology.

As I've alluded to in previous posts, comedy relies on releasing cognitive tension. We laugh in order to signal to each other that some confusing stimulus has revealed itself to be devoid of threat. We don't do this consciously, of course. The signalling happens at a very primal level.(For a clearer, more exact picture of what I mean, I can heartily recommend Inside Jokes, by Hurley, Dennett and Adams.)

What the structure of good comedy sketches therefore reveals is what kinds of patterns of interaction between people generate cognitive tension, and what the exploding of that tension looks like. We can use this knowledge to help us design machines, rituals, and social systems that don't create cognitive tension in the first place.

The first, most important pattern for us to notice in sketches is the power of the number three, which I alluded to in the first post in this sequence. The brain loves things that comes in threes, because three instances is the minimum that the brain needs in order to build a new rule about cause and effect. However, as well as enabling the brain to construct new useful behaviors, the same rule-building architecture in our heads also watches out for patterns of frustration.

Life is full of obstacles. This means that when we go about the process of trying to achieve goals in our lives, whether simple or complex, things will go wrong. We usually don't mind that much because it happens so often. We just adapt and move on.

When we are frustrated twice while trying to achieve the same goal, our brain is put on alert. Our mental focus increases. We apply more resources to the problem. However, when we're frustrated three times in the same activity, our brain knows that applying mental focus wasn't sufficient. We have evidence that the activity we've chosen is either harder than we thought, or that we're being purposefully thwarted. At this point, the brain signals the amygdala, and we receive a squirt of cortisol. The fight or flight response kicks in and we stop being fully rational.

This is why the best sketches focus around an obstructed desire--a protagonist who wants something they're not getting. By empathizing with someone in a state of mounting frustration, we indirectly experience that mental state. This is also why the third strike of obstruction in a good sketch needs to be both different from the preceding ones, and ludicrous. It's vital that rather than getting angry about the contents of the sketch, we see it as ridiculous.

In short, comedy works when we play brinkmanship with the reflex that makes us upset. That's why much of the most powerful comedy is dark. The closer you get to that edge, the more profound the release of tension.

Part of the problem with this reflex is that we've created a world filled with complex systems that we can't control, and which vary wildly in their ease of use. This means that our trigger for frustration is pulled many times per day, and it's the easiest thing in the world for our brains to try to match the pattern of obstruction we experience onto some kind of conscious agent, however imaginary. Whether it's your computer, people on bicycles, people in cars, or the office printer, the effect is the same.

How do we build better social systems, then? By maximizing the number of sequential frustrations a person experiences in trying to achieve any particular goal to two. Whether you're designing roads or software interfaces, you study the usage patterns of the system you're building, and try to make sure that for every two instances where a person may encounter obstruction, there is some other step that is almost guaranteed to go right that follows it, even if that step is unecessary.

While this doesn't apply to every situation in system design, it's an extremely powerful human factor to bear in mind, and it applies far more broadly than might immediately be obvious. Furthermore, by having an awareness of the processes by which we get frustrated, we enable ourselves to overcome anger more easily. Unsurprisingly, improv training can help here. In the next post in this set, I'll talk more about how we can take this understanding and apply it in training and education to improve the lives of the people we interact with every day.

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