Institut Jean Nicod

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R. Umbres : Paper-stretchers, Fallopian tubes and dahus. Epistemic vigilance and the social mechanisms of mirthful deception


Radu Umbres - 09/11/2012 at 4 pm

Our next speaker will be Radu Umbres (Institut Jean Nicod). Radu received his PhD from University College London and he is now a post-doc fellow at the Institute.

Paper-stretchers, Fallopian tubes and dahus. Epistemic vigilance and the social mechanisms of mirthful deception

Date, Time, Place : 09/11/2012, 4pm, Salle de Réunion du Pavillon Jardin

This paper analyses the “fool’s errand”, a type of practical joke which occurs across different societies and institutional settings in which “victims” are tricked into perform patently absurd actions. I discuss several instances of this prank found in my ethnography of Romanian villagers as well as described in literature. This paper argues that these variants share an elaborate mode of deception which can be explained by the intersection of a cognitive mechanism in human communication proposed by Dan Sperber and his colleagues (Sperber et al. 2010) with a specific structure of competence and authority attached to social roles. The success of “fool’s errands” is comes from a particular vulnerability of human cognition to form mental representations in the absence of full comprehension of utterances when the speaker is seemingly competent and trustworthy. The prank exploits the override of epistemic vigilance towards the (nonsensical) content of utterances by (misplaced yet reasonable) epistemic trust in the source of information. The paper also discusses similarities and differences between reported forms of the “fool’s errand” as well as the success of it s social reproduction, by analysing the social structures wherein the prank is embedded. Finally, I address the theoretical relevance of a study of “fool’s errand” in comparison with classical anthropological approaches to rites of passage and institutionalised mirth.

Sperber, D. et al., 2010. Epistemic vigilance. Mind and Language, 25(4), pp.359–393.