The similarities between cartooning and researching

I recently heard Terry Gross interview New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff on NPR and was impressed by the parallels between producing good cartoons and producing good cognitive research (interestingly enough, Mankoff has also been involved in some psychological research on humor, but the links that intrigued me were less obvious.

Bob Mankoff’s most famous cartoon. Image:

Regarding the process of creating a good cartoon, Mankoff says:

people think you get one idea for a cartoon every week, and that’s not the way it works. You usually get 10 or 15… And people say, well, why, you know, new cartoonists especially ask me: Why do you want me to do 10 cartoons every week? I say because nine out of 10 things in life don’t work out.

Like cartoonists, researchers generate many more ideas for experiments than they can actually implement. And they implement many more experiments than they publish because lots of them flop. The reasons that both cartoonists and researchers (and many other people, I’m sure) need to count on the fact that 9 out of 10 things won’t work out might be the same: First, sometimes people have bad ideas – they’re not funny cartoons or accurate hypotheses. Second, sometimes people implement things poorly – a funny idea might not be expressed clearly in a cartoon or a good hypothesis might not be investigated through the right methods.

Another interesting comment Mankoff made was regarding the “shifting character of humor in our society.” He referred to it a few times as “meta,” and noted that “it’s become much more humor about humor.” This reminds me specifically of what cognitive science researchers do all the time – we’re thinking about thinking. Since I’m currently procrastinating getting some work done, I guess right now I could say I’m thinking about thinking about thinking…

This aligns with my experiences so far.


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