Making Jokes and One Child’s Learning
(the first paper based on analysis of The Intimate Study,
long unpublished, see original at LC2cO1
Scholarly work tends, in this period of professional specialization, to seek theoretical depth as its first objective. There are other possibilities worth pursuing as well. This collection of material relating to learning and humor comes from a broader effort called “The Intimate Study”. Breadth of coverage was a consequence of my primary commitment to following the development of a child wherever her behavior and learning might lead. The method of analysis has been to proceed as deep as the data collected permit, with the technical objective of using that material as a foundation for the creation of computational models of knowledge and learning. The primary analyses of that broader study appear in Lawler (1985); the movement in the direction of cognitive modelling is represented by Lawler and Selfridge (1985), and Lawler (1987). The four central analyses of The Intimate Study are about Miriam, my daughter. The extensive detailed data collected in the study of her thinking and the attempt to use it all in interpretation represent an effort to tighten up and exploit methods of idiographic study to permit empirically based descriptions of cognitive structures. The four primary analyses of Miriam’s learning form a unified exploration of how local changes in cognitive structure result in significant large scale effects. Other analyses, such as this study of her humor, have different but related objectives.
The Intimate Study was inspired in part by a suggestion of Flavell’s (1963) to blend Piaget’s focus on knowledge structures with the ecological emphasis of Barker and Wright (1955) and undertake “a type of research endeavor which has not yet been exploited: an ecological study of the young child’s mundane interchanges with his workaday world.” Because the study was not about a great man’s thought but merely about the marvel of a normal child’s learning, it depends for its general interest in a technical way on arguments about the lawfulness of psychic phenomena advanced by Kurt Lewin. He argued that the individual case does not merely illustrate the general law; it embodies the general law. If mental phenomena are lawful in a strong sense, as physical phenomena are, one can arrive at the general law through detailed interpretation of the particular case (Lewin, 1935). The primary objective of The Intimate Study was to produce a corpus which could be analyzed in such a way as to advance our understanding of learning.
Humor should have a role in such a study, and not merely because it is of interest to all of us. Humor often emerges from the juxtaposition and interplay of multiple points of view. Learning also often derives from the conjunction and clash of preestablished knowledge structures. For this reason, studies of humor and learning can illuminate each other. The difficulty of collecting information about human thinking makes the study as challenging as any among those not strictly impossible. The idiographic method has been, so far, under-used in studies of humor:
We would argue that our relative ignorance of the bases underlying individual variations in children’s humour partially stems from a certain methodological myopia. Overconcern with empirical generalization has led many researchers to over-emphasize the value of the nomothetic and differential research strategies, and to downplay the utility of the idiographic aproach. While we agree that generalizability is important, and ultimately the goal of any humour theory, we believe quite strongly that in-depth case-study analyses of humour, which is the core of the idiographic approach, are extremely valuable and deserving of greater ttention. If nothing else, they would appear to be a potentially rich source for the generation of testable theoretical ideas. (One should never forget that Freud’s unparalleled theory of personality and Piaget’s equally impressive theory of cognitive development originated from intensive case studies of a small number of individuals.)
Brodzinsky and Rightmyer, 1980
My hope for this paper, based as it is on a limited collection of humorous material embedded in a very detailed case study, is that it will inspire those with richer topical collections of material to pursue analyses which will tell us more about the way that uniform laws of development lead to individual differences in various circumstances.
At the beginning of The Intimate Study, we were a family of four, two parents and two children, Robby, age 8, and Miriam, age 6. The specific objective of our family study was to trace in fine detail Miriam’s learning for the six months following her sixth birthday. This core of The Intimate Study was extended by later observations. I recorded her behavior in well structured situations and followed her beyond the confines of the computer laboratory with naturalistic observation in the various settings of her everyday world. Miriam was under continual observation for six months. When The Intimate Study began, she was finishing kindergarten (one making no substantial academic demands upon her). As the study ended, she completed her first month of first grade. I frequently visited kindergarten and knew her friends well. With very few exceptions, the only times Miriam spent away from home were in my company; most of those times were the hours at project Logo’s Children’s Learning Lab. Her young age, the limits of her world, and my having the time permitted us to share a common world for the period of The Intimate Study.
Because of these circumstances, much of the humor involves the child interacting with an adult. But, as will be clear from the following text, the interactions were not typical of those between experimenter and subject, such as one finds, for example, in the well-defined procedures of the Binet test. Our joking interactions reflected a general sense of collegiality. The Intimate Study was thus an experiment ‘with’ children, not an experiment ‘on’ children. Miriam and her brother were willing to help me with my work because doing so implied we would spend a lot of time together. As an engaged experimenter, my role was different from that of researchers in more objective studies. In function, we three comrades worked like a project team or task force. If I was first among equals because of my specific skills and depth of experience, nonetheless Robby and Miriam exercised considerable direction in our daily doings because my objective was to follow in detail their understanding of our work. The data collected during this period are grouped into four matters: profiles; sessions; the log, and vignettes. Most of the material about humor derives from the vignettes. Although not specifically relevant to this theme, I describe the data collections to specify the context in which the material on humor fits.
The Profiles. The profiles are a series of initial and terminal cognitive examinations. Through these, Miriam’s capabilities and styles of thought may be compared with data in the psychological literature and with normal education skills through her performance on Piagetian experiments and academic tasks. Other materials of an idiographic character were collected as well.
The Sessions. The sessions were mechanically recorded, all on audiotape and many on videotape. Processing of the marginally edited transcripts and working materials of these sessions is described below. These relatively formal, directed working sessions at MIT’s Logo lab (approximately 70) and at home (approximately 20) exhibit more than four months of interactions between Miriam and me in a computer-centered environment.
The Log. These daily notes for the last five months of The Intimate Study record how Miriam spent her time. The observations are quite variable in level of detail and quality. The objective was to note what Miriam was doing every half hour or hour.
The Vignettes. Richly interpretive, highly subjective, open to error and overstatement, these materials are essentially ephemeral literary constructs whose purposes are to document events in the social world of our family and to connect themes emergent in the more structured data. The vignettes are like snapshots of thinking or short stories that surfaced in the small society of our family. They are based on selective naturalistic observation of Miriam’s behavior beyond the range of mechanical recording and in situations where the recording itself would have been obtrusive. I attempted to capture all unrecordable and significant expressions of development Miriam exhibited during The Intimate Study. To the extent that they record observations by an ever-present scientist in the midst of the action, they attempt to elevate anecdotal reportage to the status of naturalistic observation through the claim that they record all thematically interesting behavior in those settings beyond the range of mechanical recording. Though imperfect, these data may still be accepted as additional, well-placed pieces in the puzzle, pieces that have in fact been essential in helping me grasp patterns in the development of Miriam’s mind. Each vignette includes a short sketch of the point of view from which I judged the content significant. The material on joking is primarily of this sort.
Processing Observations of the Corpus
A description of our typical day during The Intimate Study will illuminate how the data were rendered in their first processed form. Early in the morning, the children and I would ride to the Logo Lab and execute our day’s experiment. Each session was mechanically recorded; printed output was collected and labelled with session numbers. We would drive home for lunch, following which the children would occupy themselves with their own amusements for the remainder of the day. I would spend several hours transcribing the recordings of Miriam’s work in manuscript. After that, I composed vignettes, attempted to understand ongoing work, and planned future sessions. Usually this work occupied me until late in the evening. Throughout the day and outside the laboratory, I would interrupt this processing to note in the Log what Miriam was doing. The essential value of the Log was in returning me regularly to observe Miriam’s activity. The lag time to transcription for profiles and recordings was usually kept down to several days at the maximum. For vignettes, the lag was more variable but usually under a week. Those days when the children did not want to work, I was able to catch up. Consequently, the data were processed to this rudimentary state in nearly real-time. Figure I summarizes the elements of the corpus and how the materials relate to the analyses here.
Puns and Other Kinds of Jokes
The invention of puns requires an ability to view one object or situation simultaneously from different perspectives. The growth of this capacity is a central theme, along with others, in Miriam’s cognitive development from 6;0 to 6;6. The following story focusses on learning about punning, although other classes of jokes appear as a background against which the knowledge of punning can be contrasted. As this story unfolds, we will try to exemplify what sorts of observations are required to understand that learning which derives from the interconnection and reorganization of disparate bodies of knowledge in the mind. The examples presented in the following text appeared over several years’ time, but they are not merely representative. Even though they are sparse, these observations are reasonably complete, because inventing jokes has been a much praised activity in my home. The claim is borne out not only by the pride with which Miriam and her brother Robby exhibited their newly invented jokes but even more by their unconstrained willingness to make gross and vulgar jokes. (Readers easily offended may take this statement as a warning.) Puns comprise one kind of jokes. I classify the other kinds of jokes in Miriam’s repertoire at the age of six on the basis of three elements: contract-frustration, vulgarity, and insult. Each of these terms can characterize a class of jokes even though they frequently appear in combination.
Contractual Jokes. Contractual jokes depend on the establishment and violation of shared expectations. The first case is the most anti-social in frustrating the expectations of the victim. Those following merely impede acting out of the script jokester and victim accept. A short curriculum at table in my home was one of telling jokes and since the children’s repertoire was quite small, listening to them retelling those same jokes. The first, most primitive was:
Jokester You know what ? Victim What ? Jokester That’s what !
How countless the times I’ve regretted introducing that joke to my children. It apparently conveyed to them the idea that a joke is a verbal exchange as a consequence of which at least one person laughs. When the joke fell under censure as a `tired old joke,’ Miriam tried variations (also condemned):
Jokester: You know something ? Victim What ? Jokester: That’s something
One development of this genre came by example from the children’s encounter with syntactic rigidity of the Logo computer language interpreter.
Miriam and Robby became very familiar with the Logo language before it was made available to the general public. Logo will not execute any command until it receives a “do it” signal, that is, a carriage return or new line; nothing else will do. As we trekked across the campus, the children frequently played “Follow the Turtle,” (the turtle is a robot controlled by computer commands). The game, a variation of “Follow the Leader”, is one of their invention wherein one child pretends to be the robot and the second to be the computer commander. The first child, physically leading, follows the commands of the second. Miriam, following Robby in a trek across campus, gave him commands which directed him to turn and walk into a wall. Robby stood quite still, with a very pleased smile on his face, as Miriam and I tried to figure out why he wasn’t moving. When I tried ending the game, Robby explained in the error message style of Logo, imitating the sound of our mechanical voice box, “You haven’t done a carriage return”. When Miriam responded, “New line,” Robby obliged her by walking into the wall.
Miriam’s later use of Logo syntax and turtle geometry constraints integrates the contract impediment motif with the legalistic or syntactic quibble as the means. A variation on the impediment form appears as making impossible demands. One day Robby imitated a different kind of robot — one for blowing the dust off newly sharpened pencils. When Miriam sharpened the first of six pencils and held it up to examine the point, Robby blew the dust off. Miriam commanded “Stop” and he did. With the next pencil, at the appropriate time, Miriam commanded, “Blow”; he did:
Miriam I’ll push your thumb. That will be your stop button…Blow. Robby (Blows on pencil and stops when Miriam presses his thumb. He then rises and stands beside Miriam, holding up two thumbs — one for starting, apparently.) Miriam Hey. Instead, this button can be for sort of running in place. Your nose will be the start button. (Miriam raises a pencil before him and presses his nose.) Robby (Blows on pencil and runs in place.) Miriam (Presses his “stop” thumb.) Robby (Stops.) Miriam (presses “start,” “stop,” and “run in place” buttons all at the same time.) Robby Arrgh ! How did I ever get mixed up in this?
This joke functions by impeding a contract (in the specific case, one ephemeral as any could be).
The preceding group of jokes tended to be less verbal than most “grown up” jokes. The vulgar group of jokes centered on relatively forbidden words as the target of their execution. Thus, at the age of 5, they reduce to violation of some petty taboo. Miriam acted out this four phrase joke taught her by a ten year old baby-sitter:
Action Verbal Accompaniement Fingers at the outer eye
corners, pulling upwards
Chinese Fingers then pulling the
eye corners down
Japanese. Hands down at the kneecaps Dirty knees Pulling out the front of her blouse,
one hand on each side of her chest
What are these ?
Though the answer doesn’t scan, “Boobies” was what Miriam expected any listener to supply.
The first ‘pun’ Miriam appeared to comprehend, and long the only pun she recognized, she expressed near age five. Imagine the child reciting the sing-song English alphabet (a,b,c,d /
e,f,g / …) Beginning with a finger pointing to her forehead, each letter brought it lower down the center of her body till the letter P placed her hand at her pudenda. “Pee, Daddy, get it ? Pee.” This homonymic obtrusion resurfaced later when I was asked to spell ‘Mississippi’. My childhood chant went “M Iss Iss Ipp I” (where the capitals show greater quantity). Thereafter I endured the expected rounds of “I pee pee, get it?” I dwell on this only because it is the first and central pun of Miriam’s experience. Such jokes must be very common in the child culture.
Having seen a TV program about the flight of the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, the children asked me why the A-bomb had a special name, then whether or not there might be a B-bomb and so forth. I explained as best I could the A-bomb and the H-bomb, that although there was no B-bomb there was a cobalt bomb that could be called a C-bomb. When asked about the C-bomb, I noted it was especially damaging to people. Miriam interrupted here with her invention of a bomb, the F-bomb, one that wouldn’t hurt people but would chase everybody away. When she had our full attention, Miriam burst out laughing and said, “It’s a fart bomb.”
Why did Miriam find this funny ? The fart bomb would obviously be good because it would not destroy things (we don’t let children do that), would chase away bad people by confronting them with a threat worse than death (which, being entirely beyond Miriam’s experience, had no appreciable meaning for her). And, of course, there is the petty taboo that farting and talk about farts is forbidden generally. (The humor I find in Miriam’s joke is that should she ever ask me what is a neutron bomb, I will be able to explain it to her as a more humane kind of fart bomb in that it kills without gross offense.) I consider her invention a witty surprise, distinct in kind from humor depending on contrasting meanings.
One of the early activities the children indulged in, when Miriam was four or five years old, was shouting as our old sports car went through highway underpasses. The chant that resolved itself as their favorite was “Daddy is a dumb-dumb.” Chanting under bridges is something they long enjoyed, and they seemed to relish each occasion as a witness that they were surprising, even outwitting, their dumb old dad. The children’s (correct) belief that an insult is one basis of humor is exhibited clearly by their early invention of jokes in the “knock-knock” form. The proto-type, to which I introduced them, is this:
Jokester Knock, knock. Victim Who’s there ? Jokester Boo. Victim Boo who ? Jokester: Cry baby, cry. Put your finger in your eye./tr>
The children’s reaction was profound non-conprehension. The best illustration of Miriam’s developing understanding — in this case at age 5;6 — comes from examining a joke she made up in imitation of the foregoing:
Jokester Knock, knock. Victim Who’s there ? Jokester Booby. Victim Booby who ? Jokester Booby you .
I infer from Miriam’s invention that she understood this type of joke as a verbal ritual which allowed her to attribute some undesirable characteristic to the victim, that is, being a booby. Note also, the minimal change from “boo” to “booby”.
After suffering a multitude of retellings of this joke, liberally spiced with repetitions of “You know what ?” I complained to the children that if they kept on they would drive me to the booby-hatch. I continued as jokester:
Jokester Knock, knock. Victim Who’s there ? Jokester Booby hatch. Victim Booby hatch who ? Jokester God bless you, Booby.
This variation was beyond Miriam’s comprehension at 6;0.
The central characteristic of Miriam’s early jokes is violation of a contract. This obtains whether the motive to laughter be the impediment to shared expectations of a script or violation of conventions about acceptable topics of conversation. A second characteristic, not previously exemplified, is Miriam’s reluctance to tell (or retell) a joke she felt she didn’t understand. She did not, for example, retell the booby hatch joke until much later. The third and striking characteristic is joke invention as a variation on a theme. Recall how “You know what?” became “You know something?” and how “Boo who?” became “Booby who?” A slightly more elaborate example is this imitation ( the second joke is Miriam’s, the first her mother’s):
Jokester Knock, knock. Victim Who’s there ? Jokester Olive. Victim Olive who ? Jokester Ah luv you.
Jokester Knock, knock. Victim Who’s there ? Jokester Pickle. Victim Pickle who ? Jokester Pickle you.
Does it seem bizarre that a child, one probably unfamiliar with the idiomatic meaning of `getting pickled,’ should invent such a joke? My preferred explanation is one of step-wise transformation wherein a pickle, seen as being like an olive (green, sharp tasting, coming from a jar), merely occupies the olive’s place . (This is consonant with the importance of minimal elaboration of concrete materials named ‘bricolage’ by the anthropologist Levi-Strauss in “The Savage Mind.” See also the discussion of evolutionary tinkering by Francois Jacob in “The Possible and the Actual” or chapter 1 in Lawler, 1985.) This implies complete blindness to the pun, and in my interpretation, the child’s ascription of humor to the peculiar threat of turning a person into a pickle or asserting that he is somehow pickle-like.
This process of step-wise variation for generating new jokes appears most clearly in the development of the chant for passing under bridges. Whenever we rode to the campus in our open car, Miriam had a standing request that we follow Memorial Drive along the Charles River and through the underpass at Massachusetts Avenue. When one day I preferred a different route to our lab, Miriam claimed she was so mad at me that she would quit my research project. I complained to her: “Do you think I like to hear you shout that I’m a dumb-dumb ? You always yell that. Don’t you think it hurts my feelings ?” Later she confided, “Daddy, we really don’t think you’re a dumb-dumb. But we like to shout under bridges and don’t know anything else to say.” Over those following days when we did pass under Mass Ave, Miriam tried out these variations of the underpass chant:
Daddy is a smart-smart.
Daddy is a smart-dumb.
Daddy is a dumb-smart.
When she later asked Robby for advice, he offered this chant:
Leader Respondent Is Daddy a dummy ? No ! Is Daddy a smarty ? No ! What is he ? An idiot !
This is a relatively flexible variation on a short script for a shouting insult. At the end of The Intimate Study, Miriam had apparently settled on the pale and bland cry, “Daddy is a nice guy.” (A replacement we all found impoverished.)
The Circumstances of an Insight
Miriam had never given evidence of understanding the knock-knock joke wherein the caller was “booby hatch.” On the last day of kindergarten, she came to do so. I joined Miriam at school that day, something I did not infrequently. Arriving early, I read one book to Miriam and those of her likewise early classmates. Miriam then produced a small book about a Chinese Panda, Ah Choo. I asked her to read it, and she did so. The simple plot has the panda sneezing on every page. At lunch the same day, Miriam began this dialogue:
Miriam Knock, knock. Bob Who’s there ? Miriam Ah. Bob Ah whoo ? Miriam No. Choo. Bob Choo who ? Miriam No. No. Ach. Bob Ach who ? Miriam God bless you.
Miriam thus clearly understood (and I believe came to understand through the mediation of the panda bear story and its joke) the knock-knock/booby hatch joke I had invented months before in response to her earlier insult.
What does one make of such a story? Note first that Miriam had been exposed to the “Hatch who” joke for over eight months before she reproduced it. Her reproducing the joke followed within a few hours upon exposure to a book which explicitly distinguished (with many illustrations) between the name of the bear Ah Choo and the identical sound he made sneezing. The difficulty she had in expressing the knock-knock joke shows clearly that she understood the pun in a different context (that of the panda bear book) and with that double perspective was retro-fitting her comprehension of the pun into the specific context of the knock-knock joke. There is nothing vulgar, there is no taboo word in `Ah Choo’. When the victim of the joke says “Ach who ?” he is vulnerable not to any direct insult but only to the indirect one of implied stupidity that he could not predict from the script’s rigidity and the initial name given the unintended meaning he is required to say. This joke qualifies as Miriam’s first complex pun (in contrast to P/pee).
Following the subject’s interest is also critical for the case study method. The blossoming of interest is evidence an insight occurred. The subject’s interest generates a richer body of behavior and envigorates the psychologist’s exploration of diverse areas of experience to discover their interrelations. After the booby-hatch breakthrough, while helping a neighbor move, Robby and Miriam discovered a book of knock-knock jokes. Of the many books lying about, they chose to read that one and brought to our luncheon table a series of jokes ( e.g. V: Robin who?; J: Robbing you. Gimme your wallet.). The crucial information revealed was that such books existed. On their next visit to the library, one child borrowed a book of knock-knock jokes and the other a book of riddles.
A few weeks later, after some knock-knock jokes crossed the table, Miriam observed, “The thing that makes them knock-knock jokes is you have to say `Who’s there ?’ ” We all agreed, then Miriam began what seemed a divagation:
Miriam Knock, knock. Robby Who’s there ? Miriam Will you remember me in five years ? Robby I don’t get it….I thought this was a joke. Miriam: (insistently) Will you remember me in five years ? Robby Yeah. Miriam Will you remember in ten years ? Robby Oh, I guess so… (the conversation started drifting another way.) Miriam: (Interrupting) Knock, knock. Robby: (A little exasperated) Who’s there ? Miriam: (Looking right at Robby) Don’t you remember me ?
This joke, which Miriam claims without reserve to have invented at that time, is especially interesting for the following reasons. Its humor depends upon stereotypical script expectations and their violation at a discourse level. As far as I can tell, it is a unique knock-knock joke in combining the contractual basis with an implicit insult (“You can’t remember a thing”) while omitting any verbal pun. One does not have to believe Miriam invented this joke to observe how her humor in this case depends on the content of the dialogue and violation of the stereotypical structure of the joke.
At age 5;6, Miriam stumbled homonyms P/pee and explopited them for joking. No one can be certain what Miriam thought then. Contrariwise, when the “hatch who?” pun appeared, it was clear that Miriam was reworking what she realized earlier as an insight into experiences she had earlier suffered without understanding. Late in The Intimate Study Miriam first claimed to have invented a pun. When she brought home the report of her new joke, she mentioned none of the surroundings except victimizing Brian:
Miriam What should you do if your toe falls off ? Brian I don’t know. Miriam Call a tow truck.
We all thought her joke funny and marked it as a significant advance over her earlier “fart bomb” joke. One need not believe the child’s claim to invention, but if children are to invent jokes, we should expect them to be this simple at first. The script is primitive as can be — an impossible question, so absurd as to be necessarily classed as a joke, gets its helpless answer and the punch line. The pun itself is simple: two concrete objects, both well within the child’s experience, are held in absurd juxtaposition because of an accidental aural similiarity. The particular form extended easily. Miriam enjoyed the first variation but rejected the second as “not very funny”:
Jokester What should you do if you thumb falls off? Victim I don’t know. Jokester Get a thumb tack.
Jokester What should you do if you lose your head? Victim I don’t know. Jokester Call a head hunter.
Compared to the relative simplicity of the first absurdity, the reflexive complexity of the second is obvious.
Punning is clear evidence, though seemingly trivial in itself, of the existence of some mental process able to span different worlds of reference and maintain control despite a serious threat of confusion. The development of punning permits inferring the effective organization of an additional level of control in the mind. It is a developmental study which would be worth pursuing on a broader scale.
This cameo raises a question central to the study of learning in everyday life. How can any student of mind cope with this intractable problem: the events which precipitate learning can not be scheduled (such as her reading Ah Choo); and worse, such events may occur quite infrequently. Confronting this problem directly, I chose to enlist the subject of the study as a researcher’s agent, a colleague in fact (and depended for completeness of observation on her interest in the content and on her willingness to be open with me, to think out loud). The coherence of this story, which spans two years though it focusses on specific developments in a limited time, exhibits both the sparseness of relevant data and the level of detail to which one must appeal in tracing the specific incidents through which learning occurs. Finally, the story shows this child, Miriam, and her learning in a productive social role. She carried personal concerns and unsolved puzzles from a central society, the family, to a peripheral environment, her kindergarten, where she employed whatever materials were at hand to solve those puzzles, from which she returned with the means to enrich that central society, the family.
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- Written as the first text based on analysis of The Intimate Study, this paper was long unpublished.
- Published in Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 1989, Vol. 2-3. Mouton de Gruyter, New York