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Many Minds

Mar 3, 2021

Do you remember the first time you made a good joke? Most likely not. Turns out the first forms of humor emerge super early in infancy, before the first birthday even. We’re not talking about stand-up routines here. We’re talking about a more basic but no less interesting behavior: teasing. In what’s known as “playful teasing,” one individual intentionally violates another’s expectations for the sake of amusement.

In this week’s episode, we’re going behind a recent paper that ask whether apes also tease each other playfully—whether they share our early-emerging impulse to prank and razz each other. My guests are Johanna Eckert, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and Erica Cartmill, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. (For those who may not know, Erica is one of the founders and directors of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, the organization behind Many Minds.) In their paper, Johanna, Erica, and their co-author Sasha Winkler review a wealth of observations made over the years that together suggest that apes do indeed have the pranking impulse. They seem to tease each other in many of the ways infants do, in fact.

Here, we talk about some of these fascinating observations and why they deserve a fresh interpretation. We consider what makes teasing such a cognitively rich behavior. We discuss the different functions teasing may serve and talk about how research on primate teasing is part of a bigger zeitgeist of work on positive emotions in non-human animals.

I’m an inveterate teaser myself; I come from a family of teasers. And I’m someone who tends to show affection for people by teasing them. So I was super excited to dive into this topic. Teasing is fascinating on its own, no question. But it becomes that much more so when we realize that it may shed light on the evolutionarty roots of humor and joking. Understanding teasing can, in other words, help us understand the phylogeny of funniness.

But, before we get going, two bits of exciting news. The first is that we have a new website at You’ll find Many Minds there under the ‘Podcast’ tab. Check it out. The second bit is that applications for the 2021 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute are now open! You’ll find the link and bunch more info on the new website, under the ‘Apply’ tab. There are two application tracks, an academic track and a storytelling track. If you like this show—and the kinds of topics we cover—there’s a pretty good chance you’d be interested in DISI. So definitely consider applying yourself and please do share with anyone who may be interested.

Alright, friends—now on to my conversation about playful teasing with Dr. Johanna Eckert and Dr. Erica Cartmill! Hope you enjoy this one!


The paper we discuss is here. A transcript of this show is available here.


Notes and links

5:20 – A paper stemming from Dr. Cartmill’s dissertation work on gesture in orangutans.

9:45 – Learn more about the work of Professor Vasudevi Reddy here.

12:10 – For more about Koko the Gorilla, who died in 2018, see here and here.

14:15 – Meet the orangutans at the Leipzig Zoo, including Bimbo, here.

16:00 – A recent review article about “theory of mind” in non-human animals.

19:15 – A classic article on tactical deception in primates.

24:00 – Many animals seem to enjoy jumping on the backs of capybaras.

27:20 – A paper on play fighting and its possible functions.      

30:00 – A recent review of gesture in non-human primates by Dr. Cartmill and another former guest, Dr. Cat Hobaiter.

41:00 – One example of a recent study using thermal imaging in chimpanzees.

46:45 – The Latke-Hamantash Debate is a (humorous) yearly ritual at the University of Chicago.


Dr. Eckert’s end-of-show reading recommendations:

The Psychology of Humor, by Rod Martin and Thomas Ford

Important early work by Otto Adang on teasing in chimpanzees, including here and here


Dr. Cartmill’s end-of-show reading recommendations:

Teasing and clowning in infancy, by Vasudevi Reddy and Gina Mireault

Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, by Ted Cohen


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Hilda Loury. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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