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The Psychology of Humor

How to appreciate others' humor and improve your own.

Key points

  • Psychological reasons help explain why some people are more humorous than others.
  • Understanding why you don't experience or demonstrate humor can help you develop your funny bone.
  • Using just a few tactics can make you funnier.
RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Some people seem naturally funny and find humor in much that they see and experience. But if you’d like to further develop your funny bone, the following may help:

Enjoying other people’s humor

Sometimes, there are psychological reasons why we don’t appreciate or show appreciation for others’ humor. Might one or more of these apply to you?

Do you avoid feeling or showing humor because you want to feel superior? Some people believe that soberness makes them more substantive, a person of gravitas.

If you want to change, if only to appreciate comedies more, a good place to start might be with puns: an eye-roll or groan might not be too tough to muster. Sometimes behavior change can precede attitude change. Try these psychology-related puns:

  • It’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they always take things literally. (Come on, roll your eyes.)
  • “I have a split personality,” said Tom, being frank. (Come on, groan.)
  • When life gives you melons, you’re dyslexic. (Roll your eyes and groan but do not file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

That parenthetical joke uses three humor techniques that will be described in the section below. After you’ve read that section, come back and see if you can spot the techniques being used.

Do you want to punish the person? Not smiling at a person’s attempt at humor is a passive-aggressive way to diminish them. Might awareness of that motivation be a baby step toward stopping it?

Do you have a hard time differentiating someone who is serious or joking while exaggerating or being sarcastic? That can occur because some families of origin rarely exaggerate or use sarcasm for humor. That may also derive from being on the autism spectrum. In either case, it may help to see what most people find funny. For example, these have stood the test of time: The movie Annie Hall, the TV series Seinfeld, comedians George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Don Rickles, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, or late-night-TV monologues. For example, these are from Conan O’Brien:

“The drought is getting really bad. The waiter at lunch today said, ‘Do you want a glass of water or a future for your children?’”

“Analysts say that Apple’s actual manufacturing cost for the iPhone is $199. That’s just parts. When you add in the labor: $200.”

“Kim Jung-un won with 100 percent of the vote. He credits his slogan: ‘Vote for me, or you will be murdered.’”

Becoming funnier1

Many people are afraid that their attempts to be funny will fall flat. Fortunately, there are practical ways to puff you well above flat.

One rule underpins much of what people find funny: Say the opposite of what’s expected, the more exaggerated, the better.

A famous example occurred in a presidential debate. The moderator asked Ronald Reagan, 73, if he’s too old to be president. He replied, “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Here are easier-to-implement examples:

Numbers offer an easy way to use the unexpected to yield humor. When you’re about to say an unexpectedly small number, call it huge. For example, I have a huge number of clients, three to be precise. Or if it’s an expectedly big amount, say “only.” For example, I had a small wedding, only 300 people.

Your listener(s) expect modesty, but you do the opposite. For example, at a meeting, you’re thanked and asked to say a few words. You could say something like, “I couldn’t have done it without my coworkers, my family, and because I’m a superstar.” That also uses the Rule of Three: Say two things that are expected and then one surprise.

The examples in the previous two paragraphs demonstrate another way to boost your chances of being perceived as funny: Make fun of yourself. Most people want to feel superior or at least not inferior. So, making fun of yourself boosts the chances that your humor will be well received.

Here’s a psychology-related example from Rodney Dangerfield: “I went to the psychiatrist, and he says, ‘You’re crazy.’ I tell him I want a second opinion, and he says, ‘Okay, you’re ugly too!’” Henny Youngman remarked on the same topic: “I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother.”

Tell a story. If you tend not to be funny, practice a one-minute version of a funny story from your personal life. Like a performer, vary your tone, and pause before key moments, especially the punch line. You might tell it into your phone’s voice recorder and then to a trusted friend.

In this case, practice does make perfect, or at least good enough, or at least not a total bomb. (That little joke uses the aforementioned Rule of Three… perhaps unsuccessfully. (The latter phrase uses the “Make fun of yourself” principle.)

The takeaway

As with most characteristics, being funny or even appreciative of humor is only somewhat malleable. If your attempts at improving your humor don’t yield sufficient results, it may be time for self-acceptance and to focus on building your strengths.

I read this aloud on YouTube.


1. This section draws from a Science of People synthesis of Siyan Li’s research, which analyzed 600 talk show videos, and the book, Do You Talk Funny? which is based on a year of interviewing and studying comedians.