Welcome to New Member, Sonia Fernandez

We are pleased to announce that Sonia Fernandez, a PhD student from the Theater & Dance Department, will be joining the group. Sonia is a dramaturg, translator and theater scholar. A third-year doctoral student at UCSD, her research concerns spectatorship in relation to humor in the context of racial performance. Sonia has worked with various theater companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and in San Diego, most recently dramaturging  The Bereaved by Thomas Bradshaw with Crowded Fire Theater. Sonia received her A.B. in English from Princeton and Master’s in Theater from San Francisco State.

Sonia’s research examines the dynamics of audience response to provocative racial performance. For example, she is interested in “permission-seeking” behavior among audience members during live performance– in the brief but highly charged moments when spectators look to those around them to determine whether it is socially permissible to laugh in response to a risky, provocative scene. To investigate these questions, she will collect and analyze data from audience members viewing real performances.  Information about the play on which she is currently working, The Bereaved, may be found at the following sites:




In our first group meeting with Sonia, it became clear that this work has important implications for the cognitive science of humor. Conversely, cognitive science research may provide some useful insights that can be applied in real-world performances. Two points of contact that are immediately apparent are as follows:

1. The “benign violation” theory of humor, as proposed by Peter McGraw and colleagues (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysSgG5V-R3U) makes some interesting predictions about how audiences should react to provocative performances depending upon factors such as prior commitment to violated norms. Observations from real performances will provide valuable insights concerning the ability of the theory to explain behavior outside the narrow confines of the laboratory and in the context of real performance.

2. This work also has important implications for research on mimicry, a topic on which Dr. Winkielman, another member of the group, has conducted several studies. To what extent do audience members mimic the behavior of other spectators? How might this depend upon the content of the humor and the relationships among spectators? These and related questions will be investigated via our collaboration.


      Over the course of our exchanges this fall, several possible experiments were proposed and discussed, with topics ranging from eye movements while viewing political cartoons, to ‘microexpressions’ — subtle, typically imperceptible facial expressions that can be measured using EMG (electromyography) — when encountering taboo forms of humor, to the neurophysiological effects of timing in jokes. We will continue to pursue these and other ideas, developing the most promising into experiments.
      Our first project, however, quite simple in design, will examine whether producing humor may alter the way people are seen, making them appear more attractive to others, and, if so, whether the effect differs depending on the believed gender of the humorist.
      The experiment will pair satirical news articles, written in a style similar to “The Onion,” with the bylines of their purported authors, including the picture of a male or female ‘author’ drawn from a database of stock images. Vanessa, the artist and writer on the team, has written a set of original, satirical news articles. Evan and Emily, psychology grad students, are writing ‘control’ articles, similar to the originals in writing style, length, etc. but with a serious rather than satirical import. (These will serve to rule out the possibility that any effect found for the humorous articles is due not to the humor itself, but rather to some other characteristic of the pieces.)
      After reading the articles, participants will complete a brief survey that will include a rating of the attractiveness of the purported author. Will photographs paired with particularly funny articles be seen as more attractive? Will this effect be more pronounced for male than female authors? We’ll update this blog with answers as we obtain the results of this experiment.