Explain this

Here’s a question I’ve been thinking about recently:

Why does explaining improve some things and ruin others?

People love learning new things, but it’s pretty universally agreed that explaining a joke ruins it. E.B. White once wrote, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

A lot has been written on the science of humour, but it seems nobody has quite cracked what cracks us up.

One theory is that humour is born out of benign violations of norms. We laugh when we’re being tickled because it’s a violation (of personal space), but it’s benign (no harm is done/intended). Puns violate language norms, flatulence social norms, and strange accents cultural norms. But in each case, they are perceived as harmless, so they’re funny.

Benign Violation Theory (BVT) is OK, but it’s a bit broad. The categories of “benign” and “violation” are so vague, fluid, and huge that the theory doesn’t have much predictive power. It’s a nice way to try and understand why something was/wasn’t funny after the fact, but it’s difficult to predict what people might perceive as a violation or as benign.

BVT might be a good framework for understanding why explaining jokes ruins them, though. Feeling the need to explain a joke in the first place probably means not everyone was on the same page about what counts as benign and what counts as a violation. And then the act of explanation removes any soupçon of violation, taking the group firmly out of the funny area where the “benign” and “violation” circles overlap.

Credit: Peter McGraw

Science, on the other hand, is ruined without explanations. The whole point of science is to rationally explain natural phenomena. Science takes aim at the unexplained and fires volley after volley of hypotheses, tests, observations, and analyses until the unexplained can be explained. There’s even a whole secondary field of science communication dedicated to explaining the results, methods, and importance of science.

But not everything has such a simple relationship with explanations.

Jazz music and modern art, for example, are (mostly) aesthetically pleasing, even without any explanation. But if you’ve ever spent some time with a jazz musician or a modern artist, you’ll know that they can teach you to appreciate details you would have missed alone.

As you learn the intricacies of jazz music: syncopation, improvisation, riffs borrowed from other songs, your appreciation deepens.


As you learn about the time and place that the art came out of, the techniques used, the messages intended, the art takes on new meaning.

And yet, there are other things that worsen with explanation. Sausage-making (and, relatedly, factory farming) comes to mind most readily. You’d think that, as curious humans, we’d want to know everything, but it seems like sometimes we like to be kept in the dark. Without direct knowledge of something gross/harmful, it’s easier to deny responsibility. Explanation in cases like these brings pain and discomfort because forces us to confront the gross and the harmful.

Interestingly, illusions have a love/hate relationship with explanation. We get a kick out of getting tricked, in a very similar way to the way we enjoy jokes. We also are curious to know how tricks work, and love finding out, but once we know, the trick is kind of ruined forevermore.


This is by no means an exhaustive list of how explanation relates to various parts of our lives, but as someone who’s making a career out of explaining concepts, it’s interesting to consider how the same process can have different outcomes.

In short: I’m definitely going to continue explaining science and learning about art. I’m going to do research on important topics even if I might not like the results, and I’m not going to go out of my way to find out how illusions work.

And I’ll stop explaining jokes.


3 Replies to “Explain this”

  1. Some explanations go against the beliefs we have already formed in our mind and hence, we refuse to consider any such explanations. It is cognitive dissonance at work that doesn’t want your mind to be wrong.

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