A quantum theory of jokes


  • Social brain

I have a quantum theory of jokes. When I hear a good new gag (new to me, at least) I can’t wait to tell those of my friends who like that kind of thing. But however good the joke, and however well it goes down at first, gradually its power diminishes.

I have reached the conclusion that there is simply a limit to how many times you can tell the same joke without somehow subliminally signalling to your listener that they are hearing the one line equivalent of an episode of Porridge on UK Gold; still funny but not fresh.

I fear speeches are the same. Recently I have been performing my ‘social aspiration gap’ speech twice every week. The talks vary in length and detail from a fifty minute version for the annual Cornwall Lecture to a five minute summary for a new Fellows evening in Cambridge. While the basic argument goes down OK, a fear of sounding stale means on every occasion I try to add some new aspect, fact or perspective.

The aspect that is currently expanding concerns the idea of changing consciousness. My argument involves explaining what I mean by change then offering a direction for change:


  • The ways we have of thinking are distinct, they differ from other cultures and from the ways our forebears saw the world and their place in it.



  • There are ways in which our world view has changed profoundly in recent times; think of attitudes to gender, race and sexuality, or the way the internet has altered our idea of human networks



  • To create a future which is sustainable and fulfilling we need not just new ideas or new policies but new ways of thinking (the social aspiration gap thesis).To address this…



  • In the face of our loss of social agency, there is an underlying need for a new collectivism (new in its aims and new in is form)



  • This new collectivism holds out the promise of enabling us to balance individual aspiration with social good but also of developing a richer and more robust idea of personal fulfilment



  • In seeking to foster a new collective consciousness there are certain priority questions for policy. How can we: have a political discourse that starts with people rather than politicians; engage individuals and communities in developing sustainable ways of living; radically reform the aims and methods of formal education; encourage co-production and co-design in public services?Many recent RSA events offer interesting insights for this thesis. Today, David Willetts and Paul Ormerod were discussing why greater affluence doesn’t seem to be making us any happier. Tonight Lord David Putnam will be talking about the emergency of climate change will require us to profoundly rethink out priorities and our lifestyles. Next week James Flynn will seek to explain how our intelligences have evolved significantly in recent decades (in some ways we are getting much smarter in others ways not).


Every day we learn more about the capacities and idiosyncrasies of our thought processes. Research in neuroscience, social psychology, sociology, policy evaluation can help us understand how politics and policy might enable us to think and live in ways that work for the twenty-first century.

Maybe along the way I’ll find out why it is my jokes don’t last.

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