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How Hard is it to Get Others to Laugh?

What animal was voted the funniest? See answer below.

“A rather distracted mother was walking with her precocious son past the lion enclosure at the zoo when he suddenly asked: ‘Mum, how do lions make love?’ Without thinking she replied: ‘I don’t know darling, most of your father’s friends are in Rotary.’” It is easier to laugh than to evoke laughter, we know. So Ben Leung decided to do his PhD study on the connection between our personality, social adjustment and humor.

Among other findings he discovered that, “Jokes that have an aggressive element tend to be appreciated more by men. Jokes with very strong aggression are not appreciated by women. But if the joke has a double-meaning, both men and women are likely to find it funny.”

Within half a second brains respond to something potentially funny. People with heart disease are 40 per cent less likely to laugh at funny situations. Not surprising, since we know that laughter reduces stress and boosts immune systems. Yet side-splitting humor remains poorly understood. So, in 2001, British scientist, Dr. Richard Wiseman, launched the global LaughLab. He asked people around the world to submit jokes and rate those that were on the site. The project attracted more than 40,000 jokes, with 350,000 people from 70 countries rating them.
Here’s the funniest joke – back then

The funniest animal by vote at LaughLab? The duck.

Wiseman also found that all jokes had at least one of these four themes:
1. Someone trying to look clever and taking a pratfall.
2. Husbands and wives not being loving.
3. Doctors being insensitive about imminent death.
4. God making a mistake.

Another finding: People from Britian, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand expressed a strong preference for jokes involving word plays:

Patient: “Doctor, I’ve got a strawberry stuck up my bum.”
Doctor: “I’ve got some cream for that.”

But Canadians and Americans preferred gags involving a sense of superiority – either because a person looked stupid or was made to look stupid by someone else:

Texan: “Where are you from?”
Harvard graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”
Texan: “Okay – where are you from, jackass?”

So, how hard is it to get others to laugh? Mysteriously difficult, according to scientists and professional comedians. In fact, it is easier to get others to cry or smile than to laugh. While you need to evoke a response in only one part of the brain for the first two, you must stimulate a more complex “laughter circuit” involving many more parts of the brain for laughter to happen.

When we attempt to understand puns, we process them in left side of the brain, several researchers discovered, including John Allen Paulos, author of Mathematics and Humor. Yet more complex, non-wordplay jokes are sent to the right side of the brain, triggering many more parts of the brain along the way.

The left side of the brain is a highly efficient, narrowly programmed linguistic computer. Alternatively, to laugh at a humorous silent film, the right hemisphere of the brain is activated. Perhaps that’s why comedians often use their body and props to silently act out a part of their story—to activate more parts of your mind.

From researchers, here’s three clues to what makes us laugh: incongruity, superiority and the pattern of three.

1. Incongruity.

A joke, “I went to my doctor for shingles. He sold me aluminum siding.”
When we see or hear something incongruous, we are surprised into laughter, often as a sort of relief. This may be a primitive response for indicating a “false alarm”, telling neighbors in ancient times that an apparent danger is, in fact, nothing to fear. V.S. Ramachandran, in Phantoms in the Brain, wrote, “The main purpose of laughter might be to allow the individual to alert others in the social group that the detected anomaly is nothing to worry about.”

2. Superiority.

Those who tell us funny stories about their own foibles—or those of others—help listeners feel momentarily superior to the jokester or to the people who’ve been made the butt of the joke.

3. The Pattern of Three

“My favorite books are Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, and Rock Hard Abs in 30 days.”

Comedians have long believed that jokes work best in a pattern of three parts. Offer two straightforward examples, then a third one to shatter the pattern.

My friend, Ben Casnocha’s recent wiki and post on humor inspired this post. It reminded me of the power of laughter to bring friends closer and to lift those in conflict off their hardened positions and more open to connecting.

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