Humor Sapiens

The laughing ape and other insights into the nature of funny.

Do Funny People Also Enjoy Humor More?

The relationship between being funny and enjoyment of humor.

Sense of humor is very complex and not easily understood, though most people feel it’s quite simple. I challenge you to try and think of a definition for humor, and I bet I can find something that is considered humorous and does not fit your definition. I won’t go into al the intricacies of humor but focus on one of the things that many people tend to overlook, and that is the unique roles of the joke teller and the appreciator in the humorous event. Telling jokes requires intelligence, creativity, imagination, ability to tell a story and sometimes even courage, while listening to jokes (or watching them on TV) is a more passive behavior but one that demands attention, intelligence and being in the right mood in order to enjoy.

Now, there are also clear similarities between joke tellers and appreciators. Both require certain cognitive abilities, and people with brain damage often cannot tell or understand jokes. Also, to be funny one needs to understand jokes and what makes them funny. A new study takes this further and tries to find other connections between creating humor and appreciating humor.

The authors used The New Yorker cartoon caption task where you are given a cartoon without a caption and are asked to write a funny caption to it. One hundred fifty-nine people (93 females, 66 males) participated in the study. Subjects were shown more than 30 captionless cartoons and were asked to come up with a funny caption for each one of them. Later, independent judges rated those captions for funniness. In addition, subjects were introduced to about 30 original cartoons from The New Yorker and rated how funny they thought they were. The subjects also filled out a standard personality test, The Big Five.

The results showed that those who produced the funniest captions also produced more captions overall, meaning that many times quality depends on the quantity. What is more interesting was the finding that creating funny captions was negatively correlated with appreciation of humor. In other words, funny people tend to find jokes less funny than non-funny people! It is not clear why this is the case but it might be that creators of great humor have higher standards of humor creativity and expect higher levels of creativity from people who tell jokes, compared to those who are not so good at creating humor.

Also of interest was the fact that extraverted people and ones open to new experiences found the cartoons funnier, but surprisingly extraversion was negatively related to humor production, meaning that extraverted people are less likely to be funny. This is consistent with my own research on comedians that found that comedians (high quality humor producers) were more introverted than the general population.

The results of this study affirm the premise that appreciation and production of humor are two different cognitive tasks, each with unique characteristics. This is why when someone tells you he or she has a great sense of humor, you should ask: Are you good at telling jokes or do you tend to laugh more?

Gil Greengross, Ph.D., is a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Mexico.

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