I took academia to the masses last night at a comedy event called, Cranker Comedy.
This weekly gathering in Adelaide attracts a full house of “punters” venturing out to enjoy a mix of emerging and experienced comedians at the Crown and Anchor Hotel.
Not being a comedian, I opted to use my time to conduct an ethics experiment to help my MBA students understand differences between stand-up comedy audiences and the general population.
To achieve this end, I ran one of the famous variations of The Trolley Problem, to gauge empathy and utilitarian characteristics of the crowd.
In the end, we discovered that Cranker Comedy audiences (and perhaps this could mean all stand-up comedy audiences) react in line with the general population, except when tribal loyalty and self-interest is put on the line (literally).
All aboard for a short, but interesting ride.
The Trolley Problem
For efficiency’s sake, I will turn to Wikipedia for a succinct summary of The Trolly Problem.
The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. Opinions on the ethics of each scenario turn out to be sensitive to details of the story that may seem immaterial to the abstract dilemma. The question of formulating a general principle that can account for the differing moral intuitions in the different variants of the story was dubbed the “trolley problem” in a 1976 philosophy paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson.
Due to constraints of time, I chose to use one of the popular variants of the Trolly Problem, thus.
In the scenario on stage, I had four volunteers from the audience acting as passengers in a runaway Adelaide tram, hurtling towards the end of the line out the front of the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
In the experiment, these passengers were doomed to die when their tramcar hit the terminus out the front of the hospital, made possibly more tragic by the real likelihood that there would be ramp ambulances staggered over the tramline and also destined to be caught in the carnage.
On the other side of the stage, I had Donna, an audience member representing a member of the public standing atop the Morphett Street bridge.
The dilemma for the audience was to decide this:
Do we opt to let the four people die by doing nothing, or do we push Donna off the bridge and onto the tracks, creating a soft derail to save the lives of the passengers while sacrificing Donna.
Interestingly, 65% of the Cranker Comedy audience opted to push Donna off the bridge when first asked what they would do.
The only emotional leverage the passengers had over the audience came when I asked who among them had children. Three of them did.
This result reveals the Cranker Comedy audience to have LESS empathy for the forlorn passengers than the general population, as evidenced by a real life version of the experiment reported by the New Scientist in 2018, when 84% of respondents opted to sacrifice one being to save the greater number.
But just how cold are stand-up audiences towards hapless passengers? Just how pragmatic are they in opting to get their hands dirty to sacrifice one to save the many?
Not cold enough, it seems, when their leader is standing on the bridge.
In a second running of the experiment, Donna was replaced by Ross Vosvotekas, the man who has put his heart and soul into creating the weekly, Cranker Comedy event for more than 10 years.
Ross is loved by all and deeply revered by comics and audience members alike.
And others, it seems, pay for this loyalty.
When the audience was asked to either do nothing and let the tramcar full of parents go to a crushing end OR simply push Ross off the bridge to save them, only 35% of the audience sacrificed Mr Vosvotekas.
More research needed
I believe these results demand that further research is conducted into the psychology of stand-up comedy audiences and I will return to Melbourne this year to conduct the experiment at the city’s most popular comedy establishment, The Rubber Chicken.
To think that an audience of comedy lovers who have gathered to revel in laughter amid kindred spirits, would so coldly let four of their number perish to save a comedy room runner, is sure to intrigue other academics and worry our civic leaders.
Indeed, most worryingly, it appears that events like Cranker Comedy, could give rise to cult behaviour.
As noted by Salande, David, & Perkins (2018) in An Object Relations Approach to Cult Membership, the hallmark of a cult is the “ability of the cult leader and other cult members to transform fundamental personality functioning in an individual”.
Is that not what I witnessed last night?
At first, the stand-up comedy audience was generally warmly disposed towards saving the doomed tram passengers but when sacrificing their “leader” was the option on the table, they dramatically showed indifference towards the innocent travellers.
For now, the lesson is this: If you recognise anybody from a Cranker Comedy audience approaching you while on a bridge, make a fast escape but do so on foot, don’t try to flee on a tram.