This is one of the most interesting questions in all of linguistics.
Because having a good answer would allow us to much better understand how writing creates value. What’s more, it would enable us to create a framework for analyzing whether or not any specific piece of text does so.
In this essay I’ll attempt to answer that question. What’s more, I’ll show how each of these four rhetorical features of language was shaped through biological evolution. I’ll do this by mapping these features onto a Piaget-inspired theory of learning.
Once we can objectively say what makes something insightful, interesting, informative, or funny, we should be able to, among other things:
- Create a search engine that returns results structured in the way that we think.
- Write textbooks that leverage our intrinsic motivation to learn, making learning more fun and effective.
- Discover new ideas by understanding the properties of the structures that underlie all ideas.
Let’s begin by taking a look at what makes something interesting.
What makes something interesting?
The word interesting is traditionally defined as “arousing or holding attention.”
The problem with this definition is that it isn’t actionable because we can’t predict whether a piece of text will hold someone’s attention until they’ve already read it. This isn’t very useful.
Therefore I would like to propose a new term: something is objectively interesting when it violates an expectancy, or when it suggests the existence of a new pattern.
The key here is understanding what is meant by an expectancy violation. To explain, consider the methodology of Baillargeon’s now classic experiment in cognitive development:
Infants' well-documented tendency to look longer at novel than it familiar events suggested [a] method for investigating infants' beliefs about objects. In a typical experiment, infants are presented with two test events: a possible and an impossible event. The possible event is consistent with the expectation or belief examined in the experiment; the impossible event, in contrast, violates this expectation. The rationale is that if infants possess the belief being tested, they will perceive impossible events as more novel or surprising than the possible event, and will therefore look reliably longer at the impossible than at the possible event.
Using this violation-of-expectation method, investigators have demonstrated that even very young infants possess many of the same fundamental beliefs about objects as adults do. For example, infants aged 2.5 to 3.5 months are aware that objects continue to exist when masked by other objects, that objects cannot remain stable without support, that objects move along spatially continuous paths, and that objects cannot move through the space occupied by other objects.
In each of these experiments the scientists created an illusion whereby an expectation was violated. For example, one of the scenarios involved a toy car rolling down a track and seemingly driving through a solid wooden block and continuing along the track on the other side. What the scientists found was that the infants looked at the impossible scenarios for considerably longer than the possible scenarios. Because our expectations come from our schemas, these experiments were a way have showing that infants do have the basic schemas needed to reason about physical objects.
The bigger point though is this: these expectancy violations made the impossible scenarios objectively interesting relative to the given schema. That is, something is objectively interesting relative to a given schema if it violates an expectation that schema logically creates.
Of course the traditional, subjective definition of interesting still stands as well. What’s more, there is a clear relationship between the two. If a phenomenon is objectively interesting relative to a given expectation, and there exists an individual who holds this expectation, then we can predict that this phenomenon will create a subjective feeling of interest that arouses or holds this individual’s attention. At least for a while. Once the novelty is gone this subjective feeling of interest will fade for that individual, though the scenario can still be said to fall into the ‘interesting’ bucket in the objective sense.
From now on, I will use ‘interesting’ strictly in the objective sense unless otherwise noted.
The role of ‘interesting’
The reason why expectancy violations feel subjectively interesting is because they are the best places to look for new insights, information, and humor.
Let me offer an example.
My college biology teacher sophomore year liked to tell a story about putting a terrarium in the freezer for a few months to see what would happen. His plan was to eventually take the terrarium out of the freezer, and then compare the growth rate of plants in that soil to the growth rate of plants in soil collected on the same day from the same location, but which had not been frozen.
When he unfroze the first terrarium though and dug through the soil he found a little bug that was still alive. This surprised him, and made him suspect that there must be an interesting story behind this. In other words, how was the bug still alive after several months in the freezer? The implication being that if he had been willing to investigate further, there was probably some novel scientific discovery waiting to be found.
The moral here is that interesting stories are valuable because they are often a source of insight and useful information. Had my professor pursued the question further he almost certainly would have discovered (or at least learned) something new.
What makes something insightful?
A piece of text is objectively insightful if it creates a new schema or contextualizes an existing schema. Since one can’t do this without highlighting breakages in how we currently reason about a given phenomenon, anything insightful could be said to be interesting as well. However, in practice one wouldn’t describe an insight as interesting for the same reason one wouldn’t describe a senator as a congressman, even though the senate is a branch of congress. That is, because insights are so much more valuable than writing that is merely interesting, describing insights as being interesting wouldn’t do them justice.
In the same way that not everything interesting in the objective sense is interesting subjectively, so too does not every insight feel insightful. A piece of text containing an insight will only feel subjectively insightful if the connection described is novel to the person reading it.
For example, we all have a schema ‘writing’ that connects pens with paper, but this does not feel insightful because we already know how pens and paper work.
Giving an example of a paragraph that actually feels insightful is harder because, as per our definition, what feels insightful varies considerably depending on our prior knowledge. But here are a couple paragraphs from the DailyKos user Vinifera that might fit the bill:
I have several friends (and a spouse) with college degrees that are irrelevant to the work they are now doing. And yet, salaries would be considerably lower without that degree on paper, unrelated as it may be. Basically the degree means you get an entry pass into the middle class.
What is also scary is that many of these degreed folks aren't actually producing anything. Meetings and project plans and reorganization do not constitute real work-- it's more like sound and fury signifying nothing. It feels like a hoax economy, set up to distribute money but without involving any actual production: you buy your pass, and you get entered in the desk jobs raffle and hope to win a high-paying imaginary career. It's extremely frightening.
The reason this paragraph probably feels subjectively insightful is because the author is creating a series of novel and meaningful connections between our schemas for skills, degrees, income, and career.
For more thinking on the common patterns underlying insightful writing, c.f. my previous essay How to blog insightful.
What makes something informative?
"Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless." —Eleanor Duckworth
Not all writing with information is informative. A piece of text is only informative if the information provided is meaningful within the context of the reader’s pre-existing schemas. Information without meaning is not informative. And if the text goes above-and-beyond this and changes our schemas themselves or the way they are structured and ranked, then we would describe that text as being insightful instead.
To give an example of something that’s informative, we must start with an existing schema. For example, let’s say we believe the best way to judge the utility of a purchase is to weigh the costs of the purchase against the other possible uses of those resources. If one has this belief, then an article about what else we could be doing with the resources going into Iraq may seem highly informative. Of course, the level of subjective informative-ness the reader would feel would be proportionate to how novel the information was to them, and how well they could incorporate the information into their pre-existing schemas.
At its best, informative writing can cause someone to change their beliefs and opinions, without having to go to the trouble of actually reprogramming their schemas or worldview. (A person’s worldview is roughly their collection of schemas and their relative importance compared to each other.) Unfortunately, as we said earlier, not all writing with information is informative.
For an example of how writing can contain information without actually being informative, consider the typical textbooks employed by schools and universities. While reading through my high school history textbook I always got the feeling we were only ‘fake learning’; that is, learning without really learning. Whenever I’d read a ‘real book’, I’d generally remember what I had read, but with my textbooks the information was always gone after a week or two.
The reason for this, though I could not articulate it at the time, was that the information in my textbooks was not connected to any schemas. I’ve always said that good writing changes the way you see something, and great writing changes the way you see everything. My textbooks changed the way I see nothing. That is, we’d read these paragraphs stuffed with names and dates, and yet our understanding of the world remained completely untouched.
An effective history textbook would organize each chapter around a different belief the author wanted the student to hold about the world. This is, of course, not allowed. It’s been banned due to the fact that real teaching, and real learning, is perhaps the truest form of subversion. Which leaves us with the shadow game of modern schooling.
But enough of that tangent.
Information that’s informative is always objectively interesting, because it shows that our previous beliefs were either mistaken or else incomplete. The former generally provides a place to look for new insights, and thus informative writing is interesting even if it doesn’t violate an expectancy directly.
The following Reddit comment by user Pseudotype provides a good example of a post that is both objectively and subjectively informative:
Ahmadenijad is fundamentally linked to the Basij, and the Basij are a national tradgedy for Iranians that is very difficult to reconcile for Western minds. During their war with Iraq, Iran needed massive numbers of expendable troops for human wave attacks into heavily mined no-man's-lands between fortified front lines (think WWI, but in the desert, and with more crazy). So a nationalist campaign was started to get every patriotic family to give one son to the Basij militia. Needless to say, it's easier to get children to do stupid things than adults. Thousands of these kids were slaughtered on the front lines, and some stories of how they were employed are truly sickening...civilized countries like Stalin's USSR used dogs for the kinds of suicide missions in which the Basij specialized. So, now the sentiment among those families, who sent their hundreds of thousands of children into battle, is that the Basij are a quasi-religious patriotic nationalist front that is incorruptable. For many Iranians, accepting that Basij are evil would mean accepting that they sent their own adolescent children to die in a meaningless act. That is why the Basij are so powerful and untouchable in modern Iran.
Ahmadenijad publically acknowledges that he was a military intelligence officer during their war with Iraq, and it is widely believed that he was a commander and trainer of Basij forces. He has been entitled to massive Basij uprisings every time people speak out against him. Through this mechanism, Ahmadenijad is able to subordinate atrocities such as we are seeing today without using official Iranian military or police forces.
Notice that none of our expectancies are directly violated, although the post is written in such a way that may lead us to create new insights on our own. In this way a writer can use information in hopes of getting us to change our own worldview, without having to go in and directly challenge any of our beliefs himself.
What makes something funny?
People usually say that what makes something funny is when it has an element of ‘absurdity’. The problem with this definition is that it doesn’t actually mean anything. That is, what does it mean for something to be absurd? And how do we know if something is or not?
According to the academic literature there are two types of humor: novelty humor, and breakage humor. That is, things are funny either because they’re new or else because they’re broken. But clearly this isn’t the whole story, because not everything that’s new or broken is funny.
Rather, there seems to be a meta-cognitive condition involved, whereby things are funny only if they’re broken or new in a way that seems like something shouldn’t be broken or new. This means that for something to be funny it must not only violate our expectations, but it must do so in a way that’s discordant with the reasoning behind those expectations. This is because behind each expectancy is a set of reasons for that expectancy based on our schemas, and ultimately these schemas create meta-expectancies, that is, expectations for our expectations. So when something is new or broken for an individual in a way that violates the meta-expectancies of that individual, then they will tend to find that novel or broken stimulus to be subjectively funny.
For example, with the Baillargeon toy car experiment, we might expect the car to continue rolling down the track until it hit the wooden block and stopped. But this might not happen, for instance the car might stop on its own before hitting the block or even fall off the track. These scenarios would violate our expectancy, but they because they still fall within our ‘expectations for expectations’ they would be merely ‘interesting’, rather than funny.
So why does humor exist? Because it’s our checksum on reality.
Humor focuses our attention on the validity of our schemas or the lack thereof, thus giving us the chance to confirm or improve them. In this sense, humor is sort of the halfway point between finding something interesting and creating an insight.
A good example of this, and another good example of humor, is the “You’ve got AIDS” sketch from Family Guy. The segment is funny because it not only violates our expectations for how the doctors will share the news of a terminal illness, but also our expectations of how this sort of news should be shared. The reason this sketch is so funny is that it not only violates our expectations, but also the schemas underlying those expectations. And the fact that these underlying schemas are quite valid makes the sketch even more funny. (Perhaps one could even say absurd.)
In addition to validating or casting doubt on the schemas of an individual, here are some other important evolutionary functions of humor:
- Humor creates and strengthens shared beliefs. It does this because the meta-cognitive element is inherently leaky; that is, we can’t make a joke without revealing our actual beliefs about a subject. For example, let’s say we are making a breakage joke. We are instantly revealing that we believe that something should not actually be broken in this way.
The importance of this largely depends on whether the joke-teller is a comedian or a humorist. The difference is that a comedian creates absurdities arbitrarily. For example, think of Dane Cooking talking about flicking cashews off of his penis into his mouth. A humorist, on the other hand, talks finds and highlights the absurdities already present in society. For example, George Carlin talking about the way we use euphemisms. In the latter case, Carlin uses breakage humor to spread his ideas about what the ideal society should look like.
- Humor is a way of putting the social acceptance of an idea up to vote. Laughter (or lack thereof) is a way of either validating or shooting down the ideas of the joke teller.
- Of course, others often decide whether or not to laugh not because of the joke itself, but because of who is telling the joke. Thus in addition to creating and strengthening the consensus reality, humor can also establish the social hierarchy.
- Humor can be used as a way of testing whether or not someone is a member of the community. When someone gets the humor of a community it’s a strong social signal that they also understand the underlying ideas and values of the community.
The Big Picture
If what you see tomorrow entirely fits with your experience today, you’re not paying attention. —Robert Anton Wilson
So how do we know when writing creates value? I’d offer this as a general litmus test:
Good writing makes us see something differently. Great writing makes us see everything differently.
I don't know how Slashdot did it, but they seem to have discovered exactly the four qualities that can make a piece of text good: being insightful, informative, interesting, or funny. If you either added a bucket or took a bucket away, the signal to noise ratio would go down.
In the long term, our understanding of the rhetorical structures of language will help us design learning systems vastly superior to the tools of today. But what can this knowledge help us do right now?
One thing, I think, is that it can help us to avoid much of the ‘fake learning’ that comprises so much of modern schooling and the media. These institutions have learned to exploit the mechanisms that make something feel subjectively interesting or informative, even when there is ultimately no insight to be gained.
Reading material like this is often triggers your pleasure centers in the moment, but there is no lasting value. Before you click that link, ask yourself whether you’re going to see something differently after reading. Or is this just another shock story designed to suggest the existence of a new trend, one that probably isn’t even there.
In addition to helping us avoid bad material, this theory can of course also be used to help us identify good material. While more work needs to be done before a fully automated system can be created, I believe we have enough theory already to enable efficient human-mediated systems to filter social news sites in a much more intelligent way than is done currently. Imagine a site like Reddit or Hacker News, but where articles were algorithmically curated to maximize the return on time spent. Not only would the articles be better, but the discussions would be better too because so many more people would actually be grappling and engaging with the material.
Only until someone goes out and builds it.